The Dallas Cowboys sitting out the first wave of free agency isn’t exactly news. It is something they’ve been doing for years now. As Stephen Jones’ power and influence has grown in the organization, they’ve become noticeably more frugal about their free agent shopping; instead they rely heavily on the draft for roster building.
In an extensive discussion with Albert Breer at SI.com, Jones reiterated much of what he has said before, with some more specifics about the Cowboys future. For an overall theme, let these paragraphs serve.
“The biggest thing is just that free agency, I just don’t think you can make a living there,” Dallas COO Stephen Jones said over the phone around lunchtime on Sunday. “That’s what we’ve always said. I think you’re overpaying in free agency most of the time. [Free agents] are overvalued, because you’re competing in a market where you’ve got teams that don’t have as many players they have to spend on, have to use cap space on.
“And the other thing is, I don’t think you’re ever one player away. It’s a building process. You’ve got to have some really good quarterbacking to win championships, but you’ve got to put a good team around him. That whole theory that you’re one player away, it’s one that we don’t buy into like you might’ve in the past.”
That’s not much different than what Jones has said before. The Cowboys just don’t pay big money for players that are getting released from other teams. One reason is that they are competing against bad teams that are ready to pay whatever it takes in hopes of getting good quickly. That means an inflated market. Breer shows this is true.
Most good teams didn’t spend. And here’s proof, using Spotrac’s offseason spending tracker for 2019 as our guide:
• Five of the six lightest-spending teams made the playoffs last year, and two of the three lightest spenders played in the Super Bowl. Ten of the 12 playoffs teams from last year are in the bottom 14 in spending thus far. And two of the four in that cluster that didn’t make the playoffs (Atlanta, Carolina) have been in the Super Bowl and made the playoffs multiple times over the last four years.
• That leaves two of the 18 heaviest spenders that made the playoffs. One was eighth (Philly), the other was 12th (Baltimore).
• It’s not unusual that it’d skew this way—good teams don’t spend because they’ve already paid a lot of their own guys and likely don’t feel as desperate. But a quick look at the recent past shows that this year the divide between the habits of the haves and have-nots was much more pronounced.
Good teams don’t spend big in free agency, bad teams do. The Cowboys are now a good team (three division titles in five years), but they’re not a great team. That is the issue. Should they attack free agency in a more aggressive manner to attempt becoming a great team? Jones doesn’t buy into that.
“I’ve always said it—good players get paid like they’re great, average ones get paid like they’re good, and so on,” Jones continued. “Our philosophy, at the end of the day, is that if we sign a guy in free agency right now, we’re basically giving up a player on our roster at some point that we’ll want to keep, whether it’s a Jaylon Smith, it’s Chidobe, it’s Byron Jones.
“Obviously, we’re going to take care of these top four guys—Zeke and Dak and Amari and D-Law. And then we’ll get into the next wave of guys. We’ve got some needs, don’t get me wrong. Are there some players that could help us? For sure. But …”
Jones makes another interesting point later in the article. He basically admits the Cowboys do not pay linebackers, but that with the two studs they have now they are going to have to pay them.
“Where it starts to be a logjam is, when you look, we’ve never paid our linebackers a lot of money, and we’ve got two, I think, rare ones in Jaylon and Leighton,” Jones says. “That’ll be where the logjam starts—when you figure out how to pay the pass rusher, the corners, the receiver, the quarterback, the running back, across the board on the offensive line, and then try to pay a couple linebackers.
“That’s when you start to have to get super creative. And if you go out and do a deal right now that’s not efficient, you’re starting to take some creative money away that hopefully is going to help you keep Jaylon, hopefully help you keep both corners. We’ll just have to see.”
Jones is being pretty candid about the situation. The Cowboys want to sign their guys to second contracts and prefer that to taking a risk on the unknown of bringing in a player from outside the organization.
As he says in the article, this is a good problem to have because it means that the organization has been drafting well and that signing these guys to new contracts is going to be a very expensive proposition. That is long-term thinking on the part of the organization and Stephen in particular. The question is whether the Cowboys should risk doing something in the immediate future, and worry down the road about how it affects those contracts that need to be dealt with.
In reality, it becomes about results. If you take that risk in free agency and it hits, and the teams is elevated to deep in the playoffs or the Super Bowl, then you were right. If you risk it and miss, then you’ve messed up not only for that season but you could be risking your roster in the longer term.
There is no easy answer, but it’s obvious the Cowboys believe in their way and they are sticking to it.
BTW, there are more quotes from Stephen in that article, it is worth checking out.