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Patience in free agency and no first-round pick mean the Cowboys . . . are elite?

Turns out those things put them in some pretty rarefied company.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons
Old Jerry may be smarter than you think.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys face a tough road ahead. They sat out the first wave of free agency, and have no first-round pick in the draft (because, Amari Cooper). That means the handwriting is on the wall, and 2019 is fated to be a disaster leading to the firing of head coach Jason Garrett and the beginning of a massive rebuild.

That’s the belief of many fans and writers alike. Yet it turns out it may be completely wrong. Those two things about the Cowboys may actually signal that they are now a top tier NFL power. Or at least behaving very much like one.

This flies in the face of what you are told, particularly in the mean streets of social media. Trying to point out any logic behind what Dallas has done tends to draw ire and arguments, or worse. But, on the day that the Cowboys finally got things rolling in free agency, two different articles appeared that draw some almost radical conclusions: Some of the best NFL teams have a history of staying away from expensive free agents and have no problem with trading away their draft picks, including first-rounders. The first half of the previous sentence sounds an awful lot like what Stephen Jones has been preaching for years now - but that second bit may be more of a shocker.

The free agency piece was the leadoff of Albert Breer’s latest MMQB at Sports Illustrated. It is almost a total endorsement of the way the Cowboys think, since it has a lot of quotes from Stephen Jones. But it also presents some clear, accurate data in support of the idea:

• 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.

The Cowboys’ approach to free agency has drawn massive criticism as other teams spend big money on big names. The problem is that those criticisms occur in a vacuum, and usually without checking to see who else is spending - and who isn’t.

No matter what you think of the approach, it seems significant that the most successful teams from the past season are almost all keeping their free agent spending at a low level. The Cowboys may carry this to something of an extreme, but this is a good case for causation rather than just correlation. The cause here is not being tight with free agent contracts, though. It is having the talent already on the roster to mean a team doesn’t need to bid for the services of those free agents. While there is an analytical argument made that the smart thing for NFL teams is to basically not sign players to second contracts and continually replace them with newer, younger talent, some players are just not that easy to replace. That is always true of a franchise QB, and it is the situation the Cowboys face in their contract standoff with DeMarcus Lawrence. Besides, that “younger, cheaper” idea clearly leaves no real place for massive free agent deals.

More importantly, there is plain old familiarity. When a star player is coming to the end of his rookie contract, or following a franchised year like Lawrence, his team knows him in a way no other can. They know how he plays, his work ethic, his demeanor on the field, how he fits in the locker room, how his skills match up with the scheme and coaching, and likely have a pretty good idea of just how he behaves away from the facility. No level of scouting or research will give them the same insight into someone who has spent the past several years with another team. All things being equal, it is only logical to choose the player you truly know over the one you are taking a certain leap of faith to hire.

This leads to an often overlooked aspect of the free agent vs. draft argument. When you draft well and it leads to success on the field (and the Cowboys have won their division two out of the last three years, which is not exactly abject failure), you don’t need free agents because you already have players that are getting the job done for you. But poor drafting and/or a failure to develop your young players means you have bigger holes to fill. It is a lot more appealing to go after an outside player when there is not already someone on the team that is likely to hold off all comers.

And the teams that draft poorly and do an overall poor job of roster building tend to have a lot of cap space lying around. They do because they don’t have those drafted players earning a considerably more lucrative second deal the way the Cowboys and other successful teams have.

This means that there is indeed a role for big free agent spending, and that is for talent poor teams who don’t develop their own, but may have a core of good players to build around if they can get a big injection of new talent. That is what the Cleveland Browns, who have some great pieces like Myles Garrett and Baker Mayfield, look to be doing this season after their major step forward in 2018. And it is what the Philadelphia Eagles rode to win their first and only Super Bowl the prior season. Remember that our beloved rivals in green were digging out from the chaos of the Chip Kelly years, when the former college coaching wunderkind basically destroyed most of their roster. The Eagles had a limited amount of talent already under contract, but they threw a ton of money at the problem in free agency - and made it work. It may prove to have been a short-term solution, but it also finally gave the Eagles a reason to have a trophy case. Besides, even heavy reliance on the draft only gives you short windows for success. NFL careers are just too short.

So if a team does not open up the checkbook and buy a roster on the open market, they have to rely on the draft, which means that picks are the most valuable thing in the world and must be kept for use in the draft, right?

Maybe not. This is the opening of an article at The Draft Network that, just like Breer’s piece, offers some simple, verifiable data.

Four teams have already traded out of the first round in the 2019 NFL Draft, the same number that did so in 2018. All four of the teams without a first round pick in 2018 (Texans, Chiefs, Eagles, Rams) made the playoffs and combined for a record of 45-19. Absent of a player selected among the first 32 picks did not inhibit the success of last year’s group of teams that traded out.

Again, pay attention to that list of teams that had no first-rounder last year. In particular, note that the AFC runner-up and the NFC Super Bowl representative are both in that group. And no one is predicting either of them to enter a sudden nosedive.

The point of the article is that draft picks are not just about selecting college players. They can be just as valuable if they are used in a trade for talent - especially if used for a player that is better than any college prospect at his position (cough) Amari (cough). It takes superior scouting and a willingness to take a risk, but trading away a first can be a plus rather than a minus. The Browns certainly are trying to put this in effect with the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. and Olivier Vernon.

(Let us all pause for a moment to offer silent thanks to Dave Gettleman and the New York Giants, who have apparently decided that the only veteran talent they need to keep is Eli Manning. Never, ever change, G-men.)

If you have gotten this far and still see this as a homeristic attempt to defend the Cowboys and the Jones family, let me try to clarify. This is about using resources of cap space and draft picks to maximize the capabilities of a team’s roster. There is no one single way to succeed, but some paths have a better history of results than others. And the past couple of seasons, the way the Cowboys are using both free agency and draft picks is what most of the successful teams in the league are also doing. It is significant that both of the key lists cited here (light spenders in free agency this year and teams that did not have a first round pick in 2018) include the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams. Those are the two teams looked on as the leading elites for the next few years, influenced by their rather incredible prime-time matchup last season. If you want to find someone to emulate to build NFL success, that is a pretty good pair to land on.

We never know just how any team’s approach will work until the games are played. But those two pieces quoted from both put Dallas squarely in some superior company. Consider that in critiquing their approach to putting the 2019 Cowboys together.

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