This offseason has a different feel for the Dallas Cowboys. Free agency looks to be surprisingly successful even as the team has hewed closely to its philosophy of not overspending and looking for bargains. Most of the signings have been for one year only, avoiding any long-term financial or cap space commitments. One result is that the Cowboys are sitting on a huge amount of cap space for 2020. That sets them up to be able to handle the key extensions of star players without having to make many hard decisions forced by the constraints of the cap. All of this reflects what looks like a definite shift in how the team is approaching roster building, one that they were a little late in getting to, but one that is now is taking full advantage of the final years of the current CBA.
One of the key features of the soon-to-expire agreement is that the league got the NFLPA to agree to rookie contracts on a fixed pay scale that makes the young talent very cheap during some of the most productive years for most players. While this has not been a good arrangement for veteran players, it has been extremely beneficial for the teams. Those who have figured it out can build a talented roster for much less than it takes to invest in high-dollar free agent contracts. And for those positions where a team needs a serious upgrade, the cost of those rookie deals frees up the cap space they need, something that has been used by some teams to jump-start a rebuild.
For Dallas, that has not been a concern. But after several years of working through some dead money issues, such as the retirement of Tony Romo and the decision to release Dez Bryant, they are now leveraging their roster using those rookie deals and focusing on one-year free agent signings to fill gaps. Only two new contracts are for more than one season. Both are players they re-signed as free agents, fullback Jamize Olawale, who somewhat surprisingly got the only three-year deal so far this offseason, and swing tackle Cameron Fleming, who was brought back on a two-year contract.
All the rest, including the two most significant acquisitions in Robert Quinn and Randall Cobb, are one-year rentals. The team can let them go to free agency after this season and reap compensatory picks for 2021, or make an offer to keep them.
This has led to a very small number of players already under contract for 2020, although DeMarcus Lawrence will hopefully be added to that list. For now, only 33 players are inked for next year. And that includes thirteen that have no dead money costs if they are cut. Given that this list includes names like Cody Wichmann, Treston Decoud, Aziz Shittu, Drew Scott, and Codey McElroy, it is basically certain that not all will still be part of the team by September of 2020.
That means the Cowboys will load up again with new faces, both through the draft and free agency, while still extending core players like Lawrence, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones. They have the cap space to do all of that thanks to this process hitting full speed.
A major part of this has been the success the team has had in the draft in recent years. While they have had their whiffs and yet-to-work-out selections like Charles Tapper and Taco Charlton, most of their picks over the past several years have been good to excellent value for their draft position, with some like Jaylon Smith, Xavier Woods, and Leighton Vander Esch absolute home runs. There is a lot of very young, very good talent on the team now, with all the attendant advantages. Combined with the consistent value-minded approach to free agency and some key trades, like Cooper and Quinn, this has put them in an unprecedented position of flexibility in the cap era. Things are a little more challenging with their first-round pick this year traded away for Cooper, but their not-so-secret weapon, Will McClay, inspires confidence they will get some good bang-for-the-buck with what they have left.
It did take a while as they got their house in order. For several years they were still locking up a lot of money with long-term deals, including the unsuccessful Brandon Carr signing of. They could still hit stumbling blocks with the potential dead money on some deals, particularly for offensive linemen Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, and Tyron Smith. But having an estimated $116 million in space for next year allows them to weather even the most dire situation.
With the possible exception of Prescott, the team also seems very unlikely to make truly long-term deals any more, such as the ten-year contract they signed Tyron Smith to, or the eight years they gave Frederick. Martin was the most recent big extension, and he got seven. Negotiations with Lawrence involve whether it will be for five or six years. with the team wanting the lower number. It is an evident trend that lets them fully capitalize on the provisions of the CBA. The new paradigm is to have a smaller number of core players on longer term, big money deals, with more of the roster just passing through than in the past. They haven’t abandoned the idea of paying their own, just put some limits on how many are in that group.
That could all change when the next CBA gets hammered out, in what is shaping up to be a contentious process. But that rookie pay scale is likely to be something the teams will not budge on. There may be some tweaking of things, perhaps making them a year shorter in some cases, but this is too valuable and lucrative a feature for the owners to fully yield.
The Cowboys’ approach certainly reflects a belief that something similar will continue once things are finalized with the NFLPA. They were not as early to this party as some teams, but they are out on the dance floor with their best moves now.