It is an annual ritual for the fans of the Dallas Cowboys. NFL free agency starts. Big name signings are made by other teams, while the Cowboys wait for things to die down before bargain shopping. Howls of protest ensue because this is seen as evidence that Dallas isn’t really trying. This is despite that pattern being well-established over the past several years.
Things will likely play out that way again. Many will go on thinking that the Cowboys just miss the boat in free agency. But Sports Illustarated’s NFL analyst Albert Breer has taken a look at the present state of free agency and where it is heading, and he comes to some conclusions that may surprise you. It seems the rest of the league is becoming more and more like Dallas.
He opens with a reason no fans should be too excited about free agency this year.
No offense to any of the impending free agents out there. This isn’t personal.
But you don’t need to rip off Bill Belichick or Howie Roseman’s free-agent board to know the truth. The new league year opens next Wednesday. And there simply isn’t a whole lot to be had on the market.
He does acknowledge that there will be some mega deals this year, for a few key positions where many teams have a glaring need. The obvious example is the supertanker load of money that Kirk Cousins is likely to have thrown at him. This is something that will continue with a few good players at key positions. This year, the league is desperate for QBs and offensive linemen, and that may be a trend that lasts for a while given the difficulty NFL teams are having finding players that can make the transition from the spread offenses so prevalent in college.
But otherwise, the available players are not all that exciting, and that is as much because of how teams are now managing their rosters as anything. Or as Breer puts it:
Almost no high-end players without strings attached make it to the market anymore.
Here is a brief summation of Breer’s key points in making his argument.
We’ll start with the next phase of the player acquisition process, and that starts with the open of the new league year at 4 p.m. ET next Wednesday. And if you want overriding reasons on why the group, on the whole, kinda stinks, there really are two: the cap keeps rising, and teams are getting smarter in how they approach it.
“That’s definitely the case, it’s been a trend and it makes sense,” said the lead negotiator for one NFC team. “It certainly fits with the logic that more teams are being more proactive in locking up their own players. I don’t know that there’s even another side to it.”
That is certainly something that has been going on in Dallas for years. While many decry the lack of effort in signing free agents, the truth is that they spend a lot of money on free agents - but lately, it is their own they are handing out the big contracts to. They prefer to “grow their own” rather than go out and bring in outside talent. One of the reasons is that they understandably believe they know a lot more about someone who has several years in Dallas already than a player from another franchise. Additionally, those outside players often come from a very different system and team philosophy. There’s not much sense in trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. And that thing about baggage is very true. Although there has been a lot of angst about the Philadelphia Eagles signing Michael Bennett to bolster an already formidable pass rush, Bennett does have a history of being a rather different kind of football player. He reportedly requires more effort to keep him on point and focused. Throw in the fact that he did show some signs of decline and not putting in a full effort all the time last year, and he does have some risk factors. That’s not to say he won’t pay off for the Eagles. It just acknowledges that he is a bit more of a risk than many realize.
Good players are signed earlier. More teams are getting in front of big contracts, and the world champions are a good example of it. The Eagles gave Lane Johnson $11.25 million per coming out of his third year. Some scoffed at that price for a right tackle. Two years later, there are guards paid more. They also locked up Zach Ertz at that point, before Washington’s Jordan Reed and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce got theirs.
Here is one way Philly has gone the same route the Cowboys did with Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, in particular. They hope to do the same with Zack Martin. While those contracts looked very big at the time, the rising salary cap and the escalation of contracts in later years make them much more favorable for the team.
More trades. We’ve certainly seen it this week. And it plays into why there are fewer cap casualties, and fewer good young players making it to the market. If you’re sick of a guy or deem him too expensive, you’re more likely than ever before to be able to find a viable trade partner.
As with free agents, trades seldom involve a player the losing team wants to keep. Another big trade, Aqib Talib from the Denver Broncos to the LA Rams, hints that there were issues in Denver. They only got a fifth-round pick for him, which is not very much. And the Bennett trade also did not come at a high price. You have to ask yourself just why those deals are being made at such a low cost for the acquiring team.
Cowboys fans are lusting after Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks. But it sounds like Seattle is trying to get a lot more for him, at least at the moment. That is going to give the rather frugal Stephen Jones pause. Still, it is early, and there is still a chance.
A reliance on younger players. Analytics data says it’s smart to play guys early, and that loading up on mid-round picks is a more effective way to fill out the middle of your roster than to spend $6 million or $7 million on a middle-class free agent.
The result? Teams have answers on players earlier, so they’re less likely to be caught off guard by a bushel of guys coming of age at the end of their rookie deals, making for decisions to let some go to market. Those mid-round picks who grow up fast, because the roles are there early, get contracts before they expire. And teams put more value in comp picks, and to get those you have to do less in free agency.
That pretty much exactly sums up the approach the Cowboys took with their secondary last year. They parted ways with older players in order to bring in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods. Don’t forget Marquez White, who may wind up making the roster this year. Now they have a secondary that is largely playing on rookie contracts. You have to get it right, but as Breer notes, you also have the ability to evaluate the young ‘uns and make your decisions accordingly.
Cap space means teams can use the tag, if need be. So what happens when you do have a late bloomer? More teams than ever have the room now to accommodate using one on a player who they might want to see another year of production from, before signing that guy long-term.
It’s how we got here with Cousins, and there are two good examples of it this year. Lamarcus Joyner was just a nickel corner for the Rams in 2017. Then Wade Phillips arrived, moved him to safety, and, in the new scheme, they really had something. So they tagged him. Ditto for Dallas and DeMarcus Lawrence, who broke through in 2017 after being dogged by injury and off-field issues earlier in his career.
Years ago, the Cowboys and Rams were tight to the cap annually. This year, Dallas was fine allotting $17.143 million to Lawrence, and Los Angeles was cool putting aside $11.287M for Joyner.
I wanted to use the entire part of this subpoint, because it, of course, discusses Lawrence. And it points out how Dallas has made some significant changes to its approach that are paying off for them.
Matters of job security. If you feel like the turnover in positions of power with NFL teams comes up in a lot of different areas, you’re on to something. It does here, in a very interesting way.
In the past, the free agent market was driven largely by GMs and coaches on the hot seat. The 2016 Jaguars would be one example: Gus Bradley made it to a fourth year, and the team signed Malik Jackson, Tayshaun Gipson, and Chris Ivory. But coaches getting such a stay of execution has become the exception, not the rule.
Jason Garrett is now one of the longest-tenured head coaches in the NFL, with only six coaches having been with their teams longer than he has. That certainly has kept the pressure off to go into free agency in a big way in order to save his job. You may argue with the wisdom of keeping him, but the effect seems clear. He may be on the hot seat after the disappointing 2017 season. With Stephen Jones driving the approach to player acquisition, however, that is not going to influence free agency this year. And Breer mentions something that SJ has frequently pointed to.
So with more cap space, and more perspective, teams have wound up following what conventional wisdom has always held—buying high on the veteran market isn’t the wisest way to build a team.
Breer also mentions that free agency can be important for good teams that need a little extra to get them over the top, as has happened with the Broncos and Eagles lately, if they have a lot of cap space to work with. But it also has some cap ramifications down the road. And those comp picks make parting with your own free agents more palatable. Dallas is certainly looking to benefit from the four extra picks they garnered this year.
Almost all of the factors that Breer cites have been in evidence with the Cowboys for some time. And if you find his conclusions credible, it leads to something that runs counter to what many claim about Dallas.
They aren’t falling behind the league in using free agency. Instead, most of the rest of the NFL is right in line with them.