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Only two of 15 Cowboys players with highest 2017 cap hits are former free agents!

The Cowboys have built through the draft more efficiently than most other NFL teams.

NFL: Preseason-Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

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:

Rank Player POS Cap Hit
1 Dez Bryant WR 17.0
2 Jason Witten TE 12.3
3 Tyrone Crawford DT 10.4
4 Tyron Smith LT 8.8
5 Sean Lee OLB 7.3
6 Ezekiel Elliott RB 5.7
7 Orlando Scandrick CB 5.3
8 Travis Frederick C 4.5
9 Cole Beasley WR 4.5
10 Cedric Thornton DE 4.3
11 Dan Bailey K 4.0
12 James Hanna TE 3.0
13 Zack Martin G 2.8
14 Benson Mayowa OLB 2.6
15 Byron Jones CB 2.4

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:

Giants Eagles Redskins
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.

A look at the last two Super Bowl participants shows that both approaches can be successful: The Patriots are heavy on homegrown talent, while the Falcons are heavy on outside talent.

Patriots Falcons
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:

Bengals Packers Steelers
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

The Packers have built an entire franchise mythology around retaining their own players, and don't bring in outside help very often. Former Packers GM Ron Wolf explains:

"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:

Houston: 5

LA Rams: 5

Baltimore: 6

Seattle: 6

Carolina: 6

Minnesota: 8

Cleveland: 8

Arizona: 9

Oakland: 11

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