We continue our conversation with Football Outsiders about the state of the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 (you can see the first installment here). The FO Almanac is an awesome resource for any football fan. Not only can you learn about the Cowboys, but all the other teams in the NFL and even some college stuff. Go ahead and pick up a copy if you’re so inclined.
However, on at least one topic, there is some room for discussion. They feel that the Cowboys are still doing a bad job of managing the salary cap, particularly in the area of dead money. This, of course, is something we have debated at length over the years. Here is our question and their response:
Blogging the Boys: In light of how the Cowboys have, for several years, openly and deliberately avoided spending big in free agency because they see it as a bad investment, have over $14M in space (10th in the NFL) for needs this year, and are projected to have over $50M in space in 2019 (8th), how exactly does the dead money hamper them? To use an old flying analogy, it ain’t the runway behind you that matters, it’s how much you have ahead.
As a fourth-round draft pick in 2016, Dak Prescott will be eligible for a contract extension in one year’s time. DeMarcus Lawrence will likely be getting his own big-money deal, unless Dallas decides to franchise him again. Re-sign those two players, and there’s most of that $50 million in 2019 gone. So let’s not pretend they’ll be swimming in cash when in reality most of that money has already been budgeted to keep their own guys. Obviously, the Cowboys’ style of cap management hasn’t stopped them from building a strong team, but the problem is they don’t have the financial means to turn a strong team into a championship team. They still have question marks (as we shall get to) at wide receiver and in the secondary, and really could have used a weapon like Allen Robinson or Sammy Watkins, or a corner like Aqib Talib or Marcus Peters. The notion that you can win a Super Bowl without major contributions from veterans acquired in free agency or trades is pretty quaint. There were 21 players who started at least ten games for the Eagles last year; eight were drafted teams other than Philadelphia, including major contributors like Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Brooks, Malcolm Jenkins, and Nigel Bradham. The Patriots’ last two Super Bowl wins were due in large part to the contributions of veteran additions like Alan Branch, Martellus Bennett, and LeGarrette Blount in 2016; and Darrelle Revis and Brandon LaFell in 2014. The 2015 Broncos had Aqib Talib and Emmanuel Sanders, while the 2013 Seahawks had Marshawn Lynch and the pass-rushing duo of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Who are the veteran additions who are going to make a big play in the postseason for Dallas? Deonte Thompson? Kony Ealy? Tavon Austin? (Please don’t rely on Tavon Austin.)
A good bit to unpack here.
First, there seems to be a basic disagreement over the Cowboys’ (which means Stephen Jones for the most part) effectiveness in using the cap, particularly as it pertains to free agents. The current approach of not getting into the first and sometimes second wave of free agency was developed after some notable failures in that area. The most recent was Brandon Carr, who was signed to a $50 million dollar deal in 2012. He never really lived up to that contract and was released before it ran out last season.
Instead of putting their cap space towards outside (and frequently older) players, they have elected to invest it in their own talent, such as DeMarcus Lawrence, playing this year on the franchise tag, and Zack Martin, who just got a huge $84 million dollar deal. One advantage the team feels this approach brings is that they truly know who they are dealing with. For a free agent, the new team never really knows the whole story the way they do with someone who has been in the locker room and on the practice field with them for years. For the most part, the recent contracts they have extended to their own have worked out well.
They go on to cite the lack of an impact free agent signing of late, and list recent Super Bowl successes that involved such players. But that has not always been the case. During the stretch when they won their most recent Lombardi Trophy, the Green Bay Packers were notoriously averse to spending in free agency. They proved it could be done without those big, splashy signings.
The key, of course, is to draft well and do a good job with the “need fillers” that the Cowboys try to acquire. The latter has not been all that great for them of late, but then they didn’t tie up a lot of cap space, either, making it simple to move on. And their drafting has been excellent the past few years. In a recent article at The Athletic, Bob Sturm detailed just how the defense, which may be on the verge of something great, was assembled over the past four years through the draft.
In the last four-year draft cycle, the Cowboys have had 12 “Day one or two” draft picks. Over that span, they have certainly spent more draft capital on the defense, with eight of those 12 picks playing on that side. Yes, Ezekiel Elliott might have been Jalen Ramsey with the highest pick in the bunch, but perhaps to compensate for that purchase, the defense has received the following eight pieces: Byron Jones, Randy Gregory, Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins, Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Leighton Vander Esch. In other words, two defensive ends, a defensive tackle, two linebackers, and three defensive backs.
And every last one of them is an athlete.
And finally in 2018, if I may speak with a certain level of optimism that might be too optimistic, it appears they are almost ready to constitute the group that is added to mainstays of Sean Lee, Demarcus Lawrence, and Tyrone Crawford, making up a group that actually can handle their own business. You don’t have to play “keep away” to protect these guys. They are anxious to take the field and attack.
I certainly hope that Sturm is right, but he is correct that the outlook on defense is far brighter than it has been in a long time. And all through the draft. I don’t know if “quaint” is a good way to describe this approach.
Just from a philosophical standpoint, I also don’t know if the fact that the Cowboys will use up a lot of that projected space for 2019 is a valid objection to how they use it. Cap space is a tool, and having a lot to carry over does no good if it is not used on the proper talent. (See, for example, the Cleveland Browns over the last, um, forever.) It is there to spend where it can do you the most good. The Cowboys think that is on the players they have drafted, for the most part. We still have to see if it will pay off, but as Sturm argued, the signs are promising.
The FO writer also goes into some depth on the contributions the Eagles got from their free agent additions - but doesn’t look at the problems that is about to cause. They are projected to be over $30 million in the hole for 2019. They have a lot of hard decisions coming. Players will have to be released, contracts will likely have to be restructured, and they are flirting with what many speak of as “cap hell”. It will certainly be interesting to see just how they manage this over the next year. And all teams have decisions to make every year on how they spend their cap space.
Perhaps part of the difference in how FO sees this and how we (or at least I) do is that, after years following this team so closely, the strategy of the Cowboys is more clear to us than to outlets that follow the entire league. And they clearly have a different level of concern with dead money. That is something that can happen unexpectedly, as it did with Tony Romo’s retirement and the hard decisions the team made on Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick, among others. But the team was still able to handle the Lawrence and Martin deals despite the $26 million in dead money this year, so they clearly have a way to deal with things.
One last thing: That little dig at Tavon Austin may come back to haunt them. Austin has been everything the team could want so far. It is only practices for the most part, but if he has a breakout year... well, we’ll have to wait for those chickens to hatch, but hey, this is the time for optimism.
We obviously differ on these things. Time will bring answers. Let’s just hope the Cowboys do know what they are doing.