In what has become one of the strongest traditions in all of the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys have once again sat out the first wave of free agency and barely dipped a toe into the second with the signing of DT Christian Covington. This has spurred the also-traditional criticisms and frustrations at the team for not “going all in” with a big-money contract to a big-name player. The team thinks it has a viable approach, however. So who is right?
Confusing things is the question of whether re-signing your own free agents is the same as bringing in an outside player. The Cowboys, along with several other teams, have franchise tagged one of their top talents. Prior to getting the tag, DeMarcus Lawrence was the top free agent for the year - at any position. He is going to be expensive, and four of the six tags this year went to EDGE rushers. That just makes the price tag more expensive, as those four teams are caught between not wanting to set the market and trying to get a deal done before someone else pushes the price up by paying their player.
According to Spotrac, the Cowboys currently sit 28th out of 31 teams in spending. (An interesting but somehow totally unsurprising note is that the New England Patriots are the only team in the league that has apparently not released any figures on the free agent deals it has completed.) Once the Cowboys pay Lawrence, though, they should be somewhere in the top 10.
Arguments will continue about whether signing your own is enough or if teams have to bring in top-level talent from outside to really compete. That is just one of many factors that affect how successful free agency is for any NFL team.
What we really need are some rules for how to do free agency right. By purest coincidence, having absolutely nothing to do with the genesis of this piece, a list of just such guidelines popped up on Twitter lately.
Six rules for GMs to follow for a successful free agency (or at least to avoid a disastrous one). pic.twitter.com/Q8hZa3hAEQ— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) March 12, 2019
Obviously, this is more opinion than fact, but it is very much an outside take, and therefore may be rather objective when applied to the Cowboys. Kapadia currently covers the Philadelphia Eagles for The Athletic, and formerly was a Seattle Seahawks reporter for ESPN. It is always a good thing to get an outside perspective on hot-button issues.
So how do the Cowboys stack up against this checklist so far?
1. Don’t spend top of the market money on RBs, off-ball LBs, or two-down DTs.
At the moment, they are right on target here. Of course, that is partly because they just don’t spend top of the market money unless they are forced into it with one of their own talents like Lawrence, but a couple of completed moves also fit right into this idea. The restructure of Sean Lee’s contract moved some money from the LB position to the overall pool, and Covington’s deal is an absolute bargain for a DT, even though he may be more of a three-down player with his sack production last season. He was seen by almost everyone as being in the top-10 of available DTs, so to get him for only $500,000 in guaranteed money and a cap hit of a bit less than $1.7 million (again according to Spotrac) is clearly a success.
Now, when the team finally makes an offer to extend Ezekiel Elliott, they may really violate this rule, but we can’t grade them on what might happen.
The Cowboys are pretty open about their desire to find real bargains after that first group of high-dollar deals is in the books. They often fail, but Covington looks like exactly what they want to do. He is reminiscent of how the team picked up Antwaun Woods last May, and if he pans out the same way, that interior of the defensive line may be in much better shape. And the re-signing of Daniel Ross to another very low-cost deal also fits right in. Dallas may have found a way to have their don’t-spend-on-defensive-tackles cake and still eat well in the middle of the defensive line.
2. If an agent tells you that you’ll have to make a Godfather offer to acquire a player, walk away. Don’t make the Godfather offer.
Yeah. This is pretty much the core of Dallas’ free agency approach. Every year, the team is mentioned as “also having shown interest” in players who are now taking their wheelbarrow of money from the team who was willing to go all Don Corleone off to the bank. This is because the Cowboys refuse to get into a bidding war over just about anyone. A couple of years ago, Stephen Jones laid out his approach, and there is no indication it has changed one iota.
“I’ve said it always about free agency: Sometimes you’re required to use it, but you better go in with your eyes wide open that you’re overpaying. You’re going to pay good players like they’re great, average players like they’re good, below average players like they’re average. It’s just not a great way to build a football team. But sometimes there’s situations that do present themselves and you’ve got to be ready to do that if you see the right value there. Not a huge fan of having to go out and pay guys a lot of money, filling in big needs through unrestricted free agency. We’d rather build through the draft and then pay our own players.”
This has led to much of the frustration about a lack of aggressiveness in free agency. And it leaves out a lot. There is a kind of corollary to Jones’ statement:
The Cowboys are willing to accept a bit less in the way of performance if the price is substantially lower.
Covington is an example of how they try to do this. Dallas needed to bolster the interior defensive line. There were clearly better candidates out there if you ignore the costs. The best remaining FA DT (at the time this is written) is undoubtedly Ndamukong Suh. But it is safe to say he will eventually get a good bit more than the bargain contract for Covington. The hope is that Covington may be 60% or 70% as good as Suh - possibly at something like 20% or 30% of what the latter costs. And Rod Marinelli may be able to coax that performance value up. If this acquisition does work out, then the Cowboys have an upgrade at DT without spending a big chunk of cap space or cash to get it. Suh would still be better - but that space can hopefully be used elsewhere for more free agents or other extensions.
This is what the Cowboys try to do across the board. The league puts limits on what each team can offer in contracts. The idea is to get the most value for the money available. To borrow a bit from Jones, if you can get three or four good players for the cost of one great player, you have probably done more to improve your roster.
You just have to identify those good players, which is one area the Cowboys have flubbed badly in recent years. But with the re-signing of Cameron Fleming and the success of Antwaun Woods, plus the undervalued Joe Thomas, maybe there is hope they are getting better.
3. If you’re going to spend wildly or take big gambles, make sure it’s on a player that helps your passing game or helps stop the opponent’s passing game.
That was the argument for meeting Earl Thomas’ price. But even though the Cowboys stepped back from that, they still look to be heeding this advice, at least so far. They took a big gamble on trading this year’s first round pick for Amari Cooper, who really solidified the wide receiver position. And they are going to be forced to pay a bunch of money to Lawrence. That is both ends of the equation here.
What will be interesting is if they continue to follow this when Elliott’s extension comes up. Based on this, they need to be judicious with him, because he is not a key part of the passing game. That will undoubtedly be a, shall we say, energetic debate.
There is another principle that, to me at least, belongs in this discussion. That is the fact that there is almost never one player that will make or break a season depending on whether or not a team actually signs him. Cooper and Lawrence are thought to be that kind of talent, but the fact is that there are other ways the team could make things work. They are harder, of course, which is why both of them will indeed be very financially secure at some time in the not-too-distant future.
And that is why quarterbacks will remain king of the hill when it comes to contracts. No other position has a greater influence on the outcome of a season for any team. Dak Prescott has to be the next priority after the resolution of the Lawrence situation.
4. Don’t sign a player just because he played well against your team.
5. Don’t sign a player from a rival because you think you are “hurting” them and helping yourself. You are operating at an information disadvantage.
These two are lumped together, because both can come into play for a single signing. The evidence shows that the Cowboys generally have not done this. And that’s good, because there is a clear example of a team that has tried this repeatedly, and fared poorly, right in Dallas’ own division: Washington. In recent years they have signed Stephen Bowen, Jason Hatcher and Orlando Scandrick right after their time with the Cowboys, and they just acquired Landon Collins after his time with the New York Giants as the latter sheds much of their talent. While Collins’ impact remains to be seen, the other moves didn’t seem to help greatly. The Cowboys used to do this a bit with players like Alfred Morris and Terrell McClain, but seem to be backing away from this.
For that point about how a player fared against your team, here is something to consider in the wake of Case Keenum being signed by Washington.
How we see Case Keenum vs. how the Washington Redskins see Case Keenum. pic.twitter.com/BCDcPRSXF2— Moo (@Moo12152) March 8, 2019
6. If you want to gamble on a high risk/high reward player, try to pay extra for a one-year deal. If he plays well, you can extend him or get a comp. pick. If he doesn’t, it’s a one-year mistake and you’re free of any further commitment.
This is the one rule that the Cowboys have not done so well with, with some notable failures of late like Greg Hardy and David Irving. But most of their high-risk acquisitions have come from the draft, like Randy Gregory and Jaylon Smith. For a time, that seemed to be the designated purpose of second-round picks. It has been a mixed bag, but Smith in particular has truly paid off.
So if you like the rules discussed here, you should like most of the approach taken by the Cowboys in free agency. As mentioned, the future may see some less consistent decisions made, but for now, the team is generally doing it the right way, if this is a valid set of guidelines.
Meanwhile, we still have a lot of time left for them to add more free agents. Keep these rules in mind when you are making your own judgments.