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The flip side of trades and free agency, and how it points to Cowboys’ continuing caution

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The Browns, Rams, 49ers, and Eagles have all been surprisingly active so far. But that is not a reason for Dallas to change its ways.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Dallas Cowboys
Some of the Cowboys’ money and cap space is earmarked for this stud.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

My fellow writer Michael Sisemore has a post up on how the Dallas Cowboys have a serious issue with finding good free agents to sign. He makes the excellent point that they need to become much better at evaluating possible acquisitions, and need to remain very cautious until they can prove they have. His arguments are also valid regarding trading for veteran players as well. But there are other reasons why the Cowboys are almost certain to remain marginal players in both the trade market and free agency. Literally millions of them.

In his piece, Michael named four teams that have been making headlines with their aggressive moves even before the actual start of the league year and free agency. Those four teams, the Cleveland Browns, the Los Angeles Rams, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Philadelphia Eagles, each offer some different examples of why they are doing this, the Cowboys aren’t, and in a couple of cases, the pitfalls created by big splashes.

First off, the Browns have stunned the NFL world with their trades. They have brought in players that should seriously upgrade the roster, while still having four of the first 35 picks in the draft. It was a profligate use of resources that still left them with plenty of ammunition for the draft. And they were able to do it all for one simple reason:

For more years than it is pleasant to contemplate, they flat sucked.

They added those veterans, and they have the opportunity to be big players in free agency because they still have almost $83 million in cap space. How in the world did they amass that amount? Horrible player acquisition. They have had to spend almost nothing to retain their own players, because frankly, the majority of their roster is not worth keeping.

Just look at their history of first-round picks, the players that most teams wind up locking into big contracts as their rookie deals expire. A couple of examples:

So many high picks. All gone to waste. The only successful first-round pick of note in recent memory is Myles Garrett. He does provide hope that the Browns may finally be turning the corner and will become relevant again, but otherwise, Cleveland has been the place first-round picks go to die (professionally).

Contrast that with the first-round picks that the Cowboys have signed to big second contracts. Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, and Travis Frederick represent a lot of investment, and they are expected to be joined by Zack Martin soon. Plus the team has invested the franchise tag on second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence. While Bryant’s return on investment was called into question last season, the others all seem very good choices. And Ezekiel Elliott is still a ways off from the team having to decide how to handle him.

The Rams have just added Aqib Talib, and they are also quite healthy in the cap department with over $31 million in space. While they were not as dismal as Cleveland, they also have accumulated that space due to the mediocrity of the Jeff Fisher era. And now they are benefiting from Jared Goff being on his rookie deal as well. With Sean McVay as head coach, they seem poised to become one of the powers in the NFC. But they had to pay the price to get there.

As Cowboys fans, it was galling to see the Eagles have a nearly flawless offseason last year to build their championship team. (It still hurts to have to type that.) And they also made a very successful mid-season trade for Jay Ajayi. Now they have traded for Michael Bennett, causing even more rending of garments and gnashing of teeth for Dallas fans.

But Bennett is a more risky move, given his history of locker room issues and a suspicion he was calling it in at times last season. The reality is that free agency and trades both entail more risks than the draft (at least when you are able to find good players coming out of college). The Eagles know that too well. They had the infamous “Dream Team” in 2011, also composed of a bunch of high-profile free agents, and it was a magnificent bust. Everything came up roses last season for them. But now they are paying a cost. All those free agents tie up considerably more money than draftees. At the moment, the Eagles are dead last in cap space, almost $10 million in the hole. They have to make some serious moves to get back under the cap and free up room for their draft class. Of course, that draft class won’t be very expensive. They currently have no second- or third-round pick, and only six overall. The one bright spot for them concerning the cap is that, like the Rams, they have their QB, Carson Wentz, playing on his rookie deal.

The Eagles may well be headed for a future that looks a lot like the present for the Seattle Seahawks. They are in the process of blowing things up now, with the roster that got them a Lombardi Trophy aging and largely moving on. However, they are in good shape to turn things around, also sitting with over $30 million in cap space to work with.

Things are not all beer and skittles for the Cowboys, of course. After tagging Lawrence, they sit with only $3 million cap to work with. More moves, probably a combination of releases and restructures, will be required, with maybe a trade or two to shed contracts as well. They are more or less locked into relying primarily on the draft for roster building because they focus on their own pending free agents to invest their money. It has its advantages and disadvantages. They have of course not been successful in the postseason, which certainly drives this season of discontent in their fanbase.

But they have seen some good drafts of late. Last year’s crop yielded the foundation for a new and so far encouraging secondary. A lot still depends on the development of first-round pick Taco Charlton, but Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods may be enough for that class to stand up.

We will likely see more complaining as the Cowboys continue to play on the margins of free agency. Rightly or not, they see free agency as a high-cost, high-risk path that they largely avoid. And despite the big splashes that happen every year, history says that teams are more likely to fail depending too heavily on that. While there are times the right pick-ups can help put a team over the top, as with Philadelphia, Dallas is just not going down that path. Looking at the roster, they are not really in a position to go for one piece to make things come together. And the draft, at the moment, looks to have talent in the most needed positions to help them improve the roster significantly. If, of course, they get it right.