"This is the year the Cowboys should open their wallets in free agency!"
If you're following the Cowboys in any way, shape, or form, you've probably run across statements like the one above over the last few weeks, advocating a bold move in free agency to sign one (or more) of the premier names available in free agency this year.
Opponents of such a bold move like to point out that the Cowboys have been fiscally frugal recently, and that teams that invest heavily in free agency seldom see a good return on their money. The Giants are frequently mentioned as an example, as their $200 million investment in free agency last year failed to produce a single playoff win.
Proponents of such a bold move like to argue that the draft and free agency should be used as key avenues to improve the team, and that a choice acquisition (or two) in free agency might be all it needs to carry the Cowboys past the divisional round. Curiously, these arguments also frequently use the Giants as an example, as the Giants' free agency investment last year saw them improve from the third-worst record in the NFC in 2015 to the second-best NFC record in 2016.
Both arguments obviously have their merits. But both arguments also often ignore that the Cowboys have in fact been handing out big contracts in recent years. Except those contracts were to their own pending free agents, and not to free agents on the market. This may sound like semantics, but trust me, it is not.
The Cowboys of the last few years are a team that values retaining its own draft picks. Starting with the 2010 draft class, the team has signed a small armada of former draft picks to second contracts. They signed 2010 draftee Sean Lee to a contract extension worth $7 million annually in 2013, and followed that up with Tyron Smith ($12.2M) in 2014, Dez Bryant ($14M) and Tyrone Crawford ($9M) in 2015, and Travis Frederick ($9.4M), Morris Claiborne ($3M), James Hanna ($2.8M), and Kyle Wilber ($1.6M) in 2016.
But not all teams have the luxury or inclination to re-sign their own draftees, for various reasons. Where the Cowboys have re-signed eight players drafted since 2010 to second contracts, the Giants for example have re-signed just one of their draftees over the same time span when they signed Jason-Pierre Paul to a one-year $10 million contract in 2016 (after slapping him with the franchise tag in 2015, and now again in 2017).
In total, the eight Cowboys signed to second contracts played on contracts with an annual combined value of $59 million. Add the $24.3 million in annual contract value for the remaining draftees still playing on their rookie contracts, and the players drafted since 2010 played on contracts with an annual value of $83.3 million last year.
By contrast, the Giants only had JPP playing on a second contract. Every other player drafted since 2010 had either left the team or was still playing on his rookie contract (combined annual contract value: $24.8 million). Here's an illustration of how the two teams compare:
An argument could be made that not every Cowboys player on a second contract has lived up to that contract, but there is no denying that the Cowboys have handed out some pretty big contracts over the last four years. And more big contracts could be just around the corner, with Zack Martin likely looking at an extension this offseason, and La'el Collins due for his second contract after the 2017 season.
Similarly, the Giants have pulled the fifth-year option on Justin Pugh, which will pay him $8.8 million in 2017, and Odell Beckham could be looking at an extension after the 2017 season, even if the Giants could pull the fifth-year option for 2018, and then string him along with a succession of ever more expensive franchise tags.
For 2016 though, the numbers are what they are, $83.3 million versus $34.8 million. That's quite a gap, both in terms of contract value, but also in terms of talent on the roster. And in 2016, the Giants addressed that gap, in part, by going out and signing a host of free agents. Olivier Vernon ($17 million annual contract value), Janoris Jenkins ($12.5M), Damon Harrison ($9.25M), Keenan Robinson ($2.6M) and the remaining free agents they signed in 2016 ($7.4M) add up to an annual contract value of $48.8 million. If you add the free agents both teams signed in 2016 to the chart above, this is what you get:
The Cowboys signed five free agents last year, but their combined annual contract value of $9.8 million doesn't change the overall picture much. The Cowboys' spend is still dominated by the 2010-2016 draftees. The picture is very different for the Giants, who had to supplement their remaining 2010-2016 draftees with a significant investment in free agents.
It's widely accepted that the best way to construct a football roster is by being successful in the draft. What seems like a no-brainer has become even more relevant with the rookie wage-scale: teams that draft successfully are getting top-shelf talent at bargain basement prices on four or five-year contracts, teams that don't draft successfully have to find that talent on the free agency market.
But after the rookie contracts are up, even teams that draft successfully have to make a choice: do they sign their own talent to often very expensive second contracts, do they sign someone else's talent to often even more expensive contracts, or do they look for more economical players to fill the holes on their roster?
In general, teams prefer to retain their own draftees, which leads to increasingly weaker free agency classes, as Jason La Confora of CBS Sports explains.
With the salary cap now rising at a rapid rate and about to jump roughly $15 million, and with all teams now forced to spend at least 89 percent of the cap, and with this collective-bargaining agreement no longer sneaking up on anyone, and with the franchise and transition tags still in place, and with rookie-contract wages now so concrete and finite that players on their first deals are steals ... well, the rules (through incentives) encourage extending your own young players now more than ever.
The best players get new deals after their third or fourth years (as will be the case with guys like Odell Beckham Jr. this offseason), and the also-ran teams are left to pick through the leftovers of the weaker drafting teams.
Welcome to Darwinism, NFL style.
There are no more adjustments to be made regarding how this CBA operates. Everyone is five years into these rules now and understands exactly how the various workplace stipulations function. There is no excuse for losing premier talent to free agency, by and large, unless your roster is truly overwhelmed with young studs, and even then if you are as proactive as you should be in identifying your top candidates for extensions, then you will still prosper under this CBA.
The Cowboys have been fortunate in that their drafts since 2010 have yielded players worth signing to second contracts. The Giants have been less fortunate in the draft and have had to plug roster holes with free agents. Last year, both approaches were successful, as the Cowboys rode their approach to a 13-3 record, while the Giants rode theirs to an 11-5 record, though not many big spenders in free agency achieve comparable results to what the Giants achieved.
I understand that the grass is always greener on the other side, and that free agency offers up a lot of enticing and shiny new toys. The point here is that the Cowboys have been opening their wallets plenty over the last few years, except they spent the money on their own players, and not so much on some other teams' free agents.
That doesn't mean the Cowboys are completely averse to signing free agents to big deals.
- In 2015, Greg Hardy signed a one-year deal worth $11.3 million that could have increased to max of $13 million. The deal was heavily incentivized based on playing time and sack totals, but it was a big deal.
- In 2014, Henry Melton signed for $5 million, and if the Cowboys had kept him, the deal would have extended for three more seasons at $8 million per year. Not a small contract either.
- In 2012, they signed Brandon Carr to a five-year contract worth $50.1 million.
- Last year, the Cowboys went after Eric Weddle but were ultimately outbid by the Ravens.
- And in 2011 they were on the verge of signing Nnamdi Asomugah before the Eagles swooped in and signed him to a five-year, $60 million deal.
If the Cowboys see a fit, they will invest. I don’t think they’ll make a free agent the highest-paid player on the team (Dez Bryant: $14M, Tyron Smith: $12.2 M), but I could see them investing up to about $10 million annually if they find the right guy. But if they don't find that guy, they'll continue what they've been doing: take care of their own talent and plug holes with economical players.
Not sexy, but ultimately pretty effective.