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Six Free Agency Mistakes The Cowboys Need To Avoid In 2017

We look at some common free agency mistakes and identify six the Cowboys should avoid.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency begins in a little over a week, and when the desperate scramble between teams for the best free agents begins, it's a good time keep in mind that desperation often leads to dumb decisions in the NFL.

At 4:00 PM ET on March 9, hundreds of free agents will become available, and all of them share one defining characteristic: their old team did not want to re-sign them, at least not for the price the player is demanding. That in itself should make every acquiring team wary of the free agents on offer. Here are five common free agency mistakes the Cowboys should avoid in 2017:

1. Signing a pass rusher coming off a big year

The problem with free agent pass rushers who are coming off a big performance in 2016 is that teams will pay them in 2017 like it's still 2016. And that will almost inevitably not end well for the acquiring teams.

Historically, pass rushers coming off a big year in terms of sacks tend to regress to the mean the following year. This of course is true for almost any stat. It's called regression to the mean and it occurs in almost all data sets that compare one period to another.

The key heading into free agency is to find players whom you can pay for potential instead of past performance (which they are unlikely to repeat).

Conventional wisdom says that if you are going to invest in a free agent edge rusher, you need to find a player young enough and with enough upside to provide three-plus years of future high-level performance. The problem is that guys like that are hideously expensive, and there's no guarantee they'll provide a good return on investment.

Last year, the Cowboys signed Benson Mayowa to three-year, $8.25 million deal and brought back Jack Crawford on a one-year deal for $1.1 million. Mayowa got 6 sacks, Crawford got 3.5. That's a combined 9.5 sacks for a combined annual contract value of $3.9 million.

My pocket calculator tells me that's the equivalent of $0.4 million per sack. Compare that dollar-per-sack ratio to the top two free agent pass rushers last year, Olivier Vernon (8.5 sacks, $17M avg., $2M/sack) and Bruce Irvin (7 sacks, $9.2M avg, $1.3 M/sack), and the Cowboys got good value for money, even if sacks may not be the best measure of an edge rusher's productivity. But in the salary cap era, spending your money wisely is one way to win.

Forget about the top names on the free agency lists. If the Cowboys are going after a free agent edge rusher, chances are they'll look to get a guy who's not on any top ten free agent list.

2. Acquiring the second/third wide receiver in an effective passing offense

Bill Barnwell once called this the "Alvin Harper Rule", arguing that the performance of this type of receiver is based more on the offense they're playing in than on their talent.

After three years as the starting receiver in Dallas across from Michael Irvin in the mid-'90s, the Buccaneers gave Alvin Harper a deal worth $2.65 million per season — just a smidge under the $2.9 million per season that Irvin was earning in the deal he had signed earlier that offseason. Harper caught a total of 65 passes and scored three touchdowns in two seasons before getting cut.

The Cowboys made that exact mistake in 2008. In 2007, the Lions were the ninth-ranked passing offense in the league. The leading receiver on the team was Shaun McDonald and a rookie wide receiver called Calvin Johnson was working hard to relegate the previous year's number one wide receiver, one Roy E. Williams, into third place on the depth chart. The rest, as they say, is history.

If the Alvin Harper Rule is anything to go by, the Cowboys should look for a good receiver playing in a bad offense and avoid any receivers from top 10 offenses.

3. Investing in a veteran defender from a top defense

Chip Kelly, destroyer of franchises, thought bringing in a veteran Seahawks defender would provide an immediate and significant upgrade for the Eagles defense in 2015, but Byron Maxwell played nowhere close to the level he had been playing at in Seattle, and was traded just one year into his six-year, $63 million contract

The issue with a veteran defender from a top defense is that you're never sure whether the player you're acquiring is good because of his talent, because of the scheme his team employed, or because of the teammates he played alongside. Team success can often obscure the view of individual performance. And the same holds true for a veteran defender from a high-caliber defense: Make sure you're buying a top quality product, not an average player with a big-name pedigree.

4. Ignoring scheme fit when signing a player.

Tight end Julius Thomas signed a five-year, $46 million contract with the Jaguars in 2015. In Denver's Peyton Manning-led offense, Thomas had been used as a downfield threat, especially on seam passes, often lined up outside, and was hardly ever asked to block. In Jacksonville, they targeted him on quick out-passes and asked him to block, neither of which he does very well.

Two days ago, the Jaguars traded Thomas to Miami because they reportedly grew tired of his "non-existent" blocking - as if this was some kind of new revelation.

At the end of the day, football is a game of systems and schemes. You can win by getting the right personnel to maximize your system, or you can win by adjusting your scheme to maximize the talent. But you won't win if you play your talent in the wrong scheme.

5. Ignoring why the old team let the player go.

In the NFL, it doesn't happen often that one man's trash is another man's treasure. There are a variety of reasons why teams decide not to re-sign their own free agents, and most of them don't bode well for the player's future with another team. There are exceptions though.

One of them is when a free agent may actually be more valuable to the new team than to the old team. Maybe the new scheme or system is a better fit for the player; maybe the player steps out of the shadow of an elite and/or high-cost player; maybe the coaching staff on the new team can help the player improve more (this of course is a common fallacy among all NFL coaching staffs). Lots of maybes, of course.

6. Not being active in free agency at all.

Despite all the warnings above, free agency remains a valuable tool in building rosters - if used properly. There are teams like the Steelers or Packers who have had success by eschewing free agency for the most part. But most teams have to fall back on free agency in some form or another. Good teams will wait a bit and can get 90 percent of the player at 50 percent of the price, as Bill Barnwell explains:

"What those smart teams will do in this new economy is -- very simply -- be patient. The true stars will disappear off the market early, and the dumber teams will pay a premium for talent to lock them up in the first 24 to 48 hours, but the smart teams will wait. Even if it's just a week, antsy players will see the open slots beginning to fill up around them and settle for far less than they would have at the opening of free agency."

Free agency is a (often very costly) process that's designed to plug holes in your roster. Don't ever think that you're just one or two players away, because no team ever is, especially not in this era of the NFL. And once you understand that, you'll also understand that the best way to assemble elite talent is through the draft, and not with your wallet.

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