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How Cowboys free agency aggressiveness compares to a perennial championship contender

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The Cowboys are receiving praise for this year’s free agency work. Will it be enough to take the next step?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have been getting praise lately for their efforts in the first few weeks of free agency. Just a quick recap:

  • Shored up the swing tackle position by re-signing Cameron Fleming
  • Supplemented loss of Cole Beasley with a one-year deal for Randall Cobb at almost $2.5M less of a hit on the salary cap, also brought back Tavon Austin
  • Bolstered the pass rush with a trade for Robert Quinn, a former All-Pro and Pro Bowl edge rusher
  • Added two productive rotational pieces to their interior defensive line, signing Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington
  • Signed safety George Iloka, a veteran with 79 starts to supplement the Cowboys run defense

The Cowboys we’ve come to know over the past few years have not been nearly as aggressive as they have been during the past few weeks of free agency.

Free agency is not about which team can outspend the other, only one team in the last four years has been a Top-5 team in free agent spending while also appearing in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots. Outside of the 2017 Patriots, who are responsible for an Eagles’ championship, here is the track record for big spending:

Top-5 FA Spenders Total $ Spent Avg. $ Spent Avg. % GTD Playoffs Berth Conf. Title App. SB App.
2015 $625,600,000 $125,120,000 47% 0 0 0
2016 $858,800,000 $171,760,000 47% 3 (HOU, OAK, NYG) 0 0
2017 $747,400,000 $149,480,000 45% 2 (NE, JAX) 2 (NE, JAX) 1 (NE loss)
2018 $619,900,000 $123,980,000 61% 2 (CHI, NO) 1 (NO) 0

Will you likely make the playoffs? Sure. Win your division? You certainly improved your chances. The Cowboys SVP Stephen Jones has been on both sides of the coin and has learned that spending more doesn’t always equate to making you better. Still, fans had grown pretty anxious with how each of the last few offseasons have come and gone with the Cowboys barely participating in free agency. When they did go after a players, it was almost always a bargain player that didn’t come with a ton of impact.

Referencing the chart above, let’s not criticize the Cowboys too much for this train of thought. I mean, the Cowboys have made the playoffs in two out of the last four seasons without being heavy players in free agency. Dallas has averaged spending $35.4M in free agency, 20% of the total spent by the Top-5 spenders. The Cowboys have also only guaranteed 27% of money spent compared to an average of 50% by those big spenders. Though Dallas has had success, this team is looking to take another big step in hopes to end their conference title drought that is well over two decades long and climbing.

We’re not breaking any news here by saying it’s very difficult to be among the final four teams competing for a championship. In the last four years, the Patriots are the only consistent bet while everything around them changes every season. Here is a chart looking at the free agent spending averages of all conference title participants since the 2015 season:

TMs # of Conf. App. Avg. FA $ % GTD Avg. Length/Signing
Broncos* 1 $34,145,000 27% 1.4
Cardinals 1 $72,715,000 45% 1.4
Chiefs 1 $122,125,000 55% 1.6
Eagles* 1 $50,615,000 44% 1.5
Falcons 1 $120,220,000 45% 1.5
Jaguars 1 $178,800,000 40% 1.9
Packers 1 $15,750,000 25% 1.2
Panthers 1 $22,415,000 33% 1
Patriots** 4 $61,586,250 37% 1
Rams 1 $43,815,000 31% 1.5
Saints 1 $133,912,500 47% 1.4
Steelers 1 $27,990,000 20% 1.6
Vikings 1 $117,355,000 42% 2.4
Average 1 $77,034,135 38% 1.5 years

*Denotes Super Bowl Winners

So, where do the Cowboys stand among this list of contenders? Well, they’re pretty close and you can say that about a whole handful of other clubs too, that’s the NFL. Everyone is looking up to the Patriots and have been for a while, they’re the only example of a dynasty in an era where it’s almost impossible. The key spending practice that most of these final four teams of year’s past share is keeping the length of deals low, averaging just about one and a half years per signing. The Cowboys have that same average in contract length of their free agent signings since 2014.

That’s why what the Cowboys have pulled off so far reminds you so much of the “Patriot way of free agency.”

In the last five years, New England has only gone for broke once, spending over $120M in free agency in 2017. In 2014, they were just under $70M spent as they defeated the Seahawks in that year’s Super Bowl. For the most part, the Pats have kept spending in the $30M - $40M range. The Cowboys have been even more frugal only spending about $36M on average and only once eclipsing $50M.

Even though spending was kept low, the Patriots have brought in solid players who contributed to this well-oiled machine. Chris Long and Terence Knighton were key signings for their defense even as role players. Chris Hogan was turned into one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets and they got plenty of use out of LeGarrette Blount. That’s just a few of the names but there are many more like Jabaal Sheard, Adrian Clayborn, Darrelle Revis, Patrick Chung, and James Harrison. Only one of the aforementioned names is still getting a check from New England in Chung. Most, if not all, of these deals have been one or two years at most with very little guaranteed. When they have paid market value for talents like Revis, it’s just part of their sophisticated one-year rental program.

Dallas is starting to see what a little aggressiveness can do for your team though nothing is ever guaranteed. The Cowboys did such a great job of supplanting talent they lost and you can argue that they also upgraded while paying much less. The beauty of what the Cowboys have done this offseason is that they have made themselves better without committing long-term resources. Dallas didn’t change their method of healthy roster building, all they did was some minor tinkering to their chosen path. Free agency has the high potential to be fool’s gold but if you can manipulate it the right way, it can be rewarding.

For example, there’s a good chance that Robert Quinn will be a valuable and productive pass rusher for the Cowboys. The evidence of guys flourishing under the tutelage of Rod Marinelli gives you confidence that a guy with Quinn’s pedigree will have every opportunity to reach his incentive-laden contract. If he does that, well the Cowboys may want to think about re-signing him next year. Then again, Quinn may just be too rich when considering how much they will be paying DeMarcus Lawrence. Well, Stephen Jones won’t be that broken up about snagging a valuable comp pick for Quinn’s one-year run. It’s just good business sense in the NFL to follow this path to success and the Patriots have done it for two decades. Buy low, sell high.

With an eye on the future, meaning future deals both near and far, the Cowboys are protecting themselves masterfully while loading up the talent wagon for 2019. This practice is what a lot of the best teams in the NFL have put in place to keep them contending while not jeopardizing any future plans. Speaking of future plans, my good pal, Tom Ryle, showed that the Cowboys will have the most cap space in the league in 2020:

The Cowboys have the most projected cap space in the league. By a considerable margin. And brace yourself for this: The 2020 cap is estimated to rise to $200 million at Over the Cap. If that is correct (and OTC has been good at this in recent years), then based on current contracts, Dallas will have - brace yourself - $116 million in cap space.

It might be risky but signing better players that have to bet on themselves can not only help you win now but gain capital in the form of compensatory picks. Here are the figures for the Cowboys’ spending so far:

2019 # Players Signed FA $ % GTD Avg. Length/Signing
Cowboys 8 $38,420,000 34% 1.4

The Dallas Cowboys are well aware that this offseason is of great importance with so many roster decisions coming up in the near future. They did their best to load up talent around a mostly homegrown roster that is incredibly young. Without a first-round pick, the Cowboys needed to shoot some shots and that’s exactly what they did here. In a few weeks, they will walk into the NFL Draft with six selections and not a single gaping hole, they are free to choose the best player on their board. This has been one of the more exciting offseasons any Cowboys fan has experienced in some time. Hopefully the payoff is the sweetest reward of all.