It's widely accepted that the best way to construct a football roster is by being successful in the draft. One of the phrases I kept hearing and reading throughout draft season was "building through the draft"; how important it is, how it's the key to success in the NFL, how dynasties are built off it and so on.
And while it's true that teams that invest heavily in free agency seldom see a good return on their money, that doesn't mean that "building through free agency" is necessarily wrong - especially if your team's drafts have not produced the hoped-for results.
Some might even 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 for the team to take the next step.
To see where the Cowboy stand on this draft vs free agency continuum, I decided to look at the 15 top cap hits on the 2017 Cowboys roster. And much to my surprise, I found that only two of the top 15 Cowboys players (as measured by their 2017 cap hit) joined the Cowboys as free agents after playing for another NFL team. Here's an overview:
Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa are the only two players in the top 15 for the Cowboys who didn't start their NFL career in Dallas. Sure, the Cowboys have many more free agents (they signed Nolan Carroll, Stephen Paea, Byron Bell, Jonathan Cooper, Damontre Moore, and Robert Blanton ins free agency this year), and have more former free agents on their roster.
And while not all 15 names above are made up exclusively of draft picks, the undrafted free agents on this list (Cole Beasley, Dan Bailey) both joined the Cowboys as rookies and played their first NFL snaps for the Cowboys, so they can rightfully be considered home-grown talent.
Still, for a team that's annually linked to almost every one of the highest-priced free agents, and still has a reputation as a free spender in free agency, having just two former free agents in their top 15 feels like a pretty low number. So I did the same exercise for the three other NFC East teams to get a feel for how they compare to the Cowboys. Here's what I found:
|Eli Manning||QB||19.7||Jason Peters||LT||11.7||Kirk Cousins||QB||23.9|
|Olivier Vernon||DE||16.0||Lane Johnson||RT||9.8||Josh Norman||CB||20.0|
|Janoris Jenkins||CB||15.0||Alshon Jeffery||WR||9.5||Trent Williams||LT||15.1|
|Damon Harrison||DT||10.6||Fletcher Cox||DT||9.4||Ryan Kerrigan||OLB||11.7|
|Dominique Rodgers-C.||CB||9.0||Vinny Curry||DE||9.0||Terrelle Pryor||WR||6.0|
|Justin Pugh||G||8.8||Brandon Graham||OLB||7.5||Brandon Scherff||G||5.8|
|Jason Pierre-Paul||DE||7.3||Malcolm Jenkins||FS||7.5||Jordan Reed||TE||5.7|
|Brandon Marshall||WR||4.5||Brandon Brooks||G||7.2||Shawn Lauvao||G||5.0|
|J.T. Thomas||OLB||4.0||Mychal Kendricks||ILB||6.6||Terrell McClain||DT||3.7|
|Ereck Flowers||LT||3.9||Jason Kelce||C||6.2||Morgan Moses||RT||3.6|
|Shane Vereen||RB||3.9||Carson Wentz||QB||6.1||Colt McCoy||QB||3.6|
|Jonathan Casillas||OLB||3.7||Ryan Mathews||RB||5.0||Vernon Davis||TE||3.3|
|Eli Apple||CB||3.4||Torrey Smith||WR||4.9||D.J. Swearinger||SS||3.3|
|Odell Beckham, Jr.||WR||3.3||Nigel Bradham||OLB||4.8||Stacy McGee||DT||3.2|
|Dwayne Harris||WR||3.3||Darren Sproles||RB||4.0||DeAngelo Hall||CB||3.1|
The Giants (9 free agents), Redskins (9), and Eagles (8), whether by chance or by design, have all built teams that rely heavily on outside talent, be it in the form of free agents, players brought in via trade, waiver wire pick ups, etc.
This can be a viable option of course, as it doesn't say anywhere in the NFL rule book that you have to build through the draft.
|Tom Brady||QB||14.0||Matt Ryan||QB||23.8|
|Nate Solder||LT||11.2||Julio Jones||WR||13.9|
|Devin McCourty||FS||10.9||Robert Alford||CB||9.6|
|Stephon Gilmore||CB||8.6||Alex Mack||C||9.1|
|Julian Edelman||WR||7.4||Dontari Poe||DT||8.0|
|Rob Gronkowski||TE||6.8||Mohamed Sanu||WR||7.4|
|Patrick Chung||SS||6.2||Andy Levitre||G||6.6|
|Dont'a Hightower||ILB||5.3||Adrian Clayborn||DE||5.4|
|Dwayne Allen||TE||4.9||Jake Matthews||LT||5.2|
|Stephen Gostkowski||K||4.5||Brooks Reed||OLB||5.0|
|Mike Gillislee||RB||4.0||Desmond Trufant||CB||4.5|
|Malcolm Butler||CB||3.9||Derrick Shelby||DE||4.3|
|Alan Branch||DT||3.8||Vic Beasley||DE||4.0|
|Duron Harmon||SS||3.5||Matt Schaub||QB||3.5|
|Marcus Cannon||LT||3.4||Matt Bryant||K||3.1|
As a Cowboys fan, I am of course naturally inclined to say that whatever the Cowboys are doing is the best (and certainly better than whatever it is the Giants, Eagles, or Redskins are doing.), but that may be a little shortsighted in this case.
Given the constraints of the salary cap, it may be difficult building a team entirely out of free agents, but there's no reason to think adding free agents to your team is a bad thing, though there is one downside to this approach. Free agent acquisitions share one defining characteristic: their old team did not want to re-sign them, at least not for the price the player is demanding. Which is why free agents end up as busts more frequently than players who sign free agency contracts with the teams that drafted them or signed them to their first NFL deal.
Although the majority of NFL teams are free agent-heavy in their top 15 cap hits, there are some teams that look similar to the Cowboys in the make up of their top 15:
|Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit||Player||POS||Cap Hit|
|Andy Dalton||QB||15.7||Aaron Rodgers||QB||20.3||Ben Roethlisberger||QB||18.2|
|A.J. Green||WR||13.5||Clay Matthews||OLB||15.1||Antonio Brown||WR||13.5|
|Geno Atkins||DT||10.6||Randall Cobb||WR||12.7||Le'Veon Bell||RB||12.1|
|Dre Kirkpatrick||CB||9.4||Jordy Nelson||WR||11.6||Maurkice Pouncey||C||11.0|
|Adam Jones||CB||8.2||Mike Daniels||DE||10.4||David DeCastro||G||11.0|
|Carlos Dunlap||DE||7.3||Bryan Bulaga||RT||7.9||Cameron Heyward||DE||10.4|
|George Iloka||SS||5.4||Morgan Burnett||SS||7.0||Mike Mitchell||FS||8.1|
|Michael Johnson||DE||5.1||David Bakhtiari||LT||6.0||Marcus Gilbert||RT||7.3|
|Brandon LaFell||WR||5.0||Nick Perry||OLB||5.9||Ramon Foster||G||3.6|
|Clint Boling||G||5.0||Martellus Bennett||TE||3.9||Ryan Shazier||ILB||3.0|
|Tyler Eifert||TE||4.8||Mason Crosby||K||3.6||Arthur Moats||OLB||2.9|
|Vontaze Burfict||OLB||4.7||Letroy Guion||DE||3.4||William Gay||CB||2.6|
|Kevin Minter||ILB||4.3||Lane Taylor||G||3.1||Bud Dupree||OLB||2.5|
|Shawn Williams||FS||4.0||Davon House||CB||2.8||Vince Williams||ILB||2.5|
|Giovani Bernard||RB||3.7||HaHa Clinton-Dix||FS||2.7||Tyson Alualu||DT||2.4|
"In the long run," Wolf said, "it's better to keep your own players. So I guess you could say that, in my opinion, it's better to build through the draft. When I was here [in Green Bay], I used trades and the waiver wire quite a bit. Once we kind of got it settled, we did everything in our power to keep our own."
The Bengals and Steelers are two other teams, along with the Cowboys, who seem to have embraced the idea of building through the draft, perhaps not as rigorously as the Packers, but they have drafted well enough to not have to go to the free agent market for help.
The Cowboys of the last few years are a team that values retaining its own draft picks, and re-signed a small armada of former draft picks to second contracts.
When you succeed in drafting talent, you can focus on re-signing your own talent and you can then use free agency to improve the depth across your roster. By sheer force of numbers, the draft remains the main source of new (and cheap!) player material. Get it right in the draft and you are golden. Get it wrong and you may struggle to compensate through other means.
Other teams I looked at and the number of free agent acquisitions among their top 15 cap hits:
LA Rams: 5