It hurt a little to watch the Conference Championships while the Dallas Cowboys were sitting at home and focused on scouting prospects at the Senior Bowl. They assembled the strongest roster in recent memory for 2021, only to get bounced in the first round. Now they have many free agents that they have to decide whether or not to keep while having to fix their cap situation, which was in the negative by almost $22 million. That will be addressed soon using contract provisions to free up space by converting salary into bonus money, with Dak Prescott likely going first to get $16 million in space for this year. If they choose, they can free an additional $53 million in space with six other contracts. They basically can generate the space to do whatever they want. And of course, they will not be spending a lot on outside free agents as usual, since they put the overwhelming emphasis on draft picks to add to their roster.
That has been the philosophy at the Star for years. Stephen Jones is the main architect of that approach and he is a true believer in the value of draft picks and free agent frugality to achieve long term success. Now if only that would finally start to pay off. For a long, long time, it hasn’t.
It is regrettable since there is more than one way to skin a cat despite the dogma of the Cowboys. In a couple of weeks, we will watch the Los Angeles Rams represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the second time they have done so in the past four years. And they have gotten there using an approach that is diametrically opposed to Dallas, treating draft picks and free agent spending like Monopoly money.
Dave Sturchio, Tony Catalina, and Aidan Davis discussed how far the Cowboys are from the Bengals and Rams on the latest edition of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our episodes. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
The most obvious example is how they acquired the quarterbacks for those two appearances in the big game. In 2016, their biggest need in the draft was clearly at quarterback. That year, the consensus top two prospects were Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. While subsequent history has shown that they were not long-term solutions, both saw their teams go to the Super Bowl during their rookie deals. And both were drafted after their teams made blockbuster trades. For the Rams, getting to the number two overall pick so they could take Goff cost them a ton of draft capital. They sent their 2016 first-round pick, two 2016 second-round picks, 2016 third-round pick, 2017 first-round pick, and 2017 third-round pick to the Tennessee Titans, getting back only a 2016 fourth- and sixth-round pick. This was seen as crippling them for years to come. But despite ending things as the runner-up for the 2018 season, they probably felt it was worth it.
However, Goff did not work out for long. The Rams extended him with a massive $134 million deal after he quarterbacked them to the Super Bowl, but soon came to realize he was not the player they needed for the future. So before the 2021 season, they engineered a trade with the Detroit Lions to send Goff there in exchange for Matthew Stafford. They had to eat $25.7 million in dead money as part of the deal. But more significantly, they also sent their 2022 first-round pick, 2023 first-round pick, and 2021 third-round pick to Detroit, while getting nothing back in return. That seems like a high price indeed. It also is now a case of getting what you paid for, as Stafford was key in getting them to the Super Bowl again.
Quarterback is not the only position they have traded first-round picks to acquire. In 2018 they sent their first- and sixth-round picks to the New England Patriots for WR Brandin Cooks and New England’s fourth-round pick. This was not at all successful, as Los Angeles would sign Cooks to an $80 million contract that he never lived up to before trading him away to the Houston Texans and eating another dead money hit of $21.8 million. That failure did not deter them, however. In 2019, they traded back using the 31st overall pick. Then in 2020, they packaged their 2020 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick, and 2021 fourth-round pick to get Jalen Ramsey from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Not only does that mean that 2024 is the next time they have a first-round pick of their own to use, they will finish the season with a cap deficit of over $14.6 million. It is a level of profligacy that would give Stephen Jones hives. Not only have they treated draft picks and cap space like toilet paper to be used freely, they have absolutely no concern for sunk costs. They have also shown a willingness to go after big name free agents like Von Miller to bolster their roster as well, although he was certainly a bargain for them as they only paid $1.3 million for his services in the stretch run.
And it has worked beautifully for them. We can only wish that Jones would look at their example and quit treating draft picks like they were made of gold and cap space as an excuse for eschewing top free agent talent.
It isn’t like he is unwilling to make a move when he thinks the time is right. The Cowboys traded a first-round pick to get Amari Cooper from the then Oakland Raiders, and it has worked our rather well despite some poor usage in the latter half of 2021. Still, that is clearly the exception instead of standard operating procedure for Jones. Expect to hear him explaining to us how the draft is the cornerstone, foundation, and fancy façade for Dallas, with free agency the hidden particle board used to cut some costs on the construction. They certainly have done well the past couple of years with Will McClay taking firm control of the talent acquisition process. But it has not been totally consistent in its success as the Taco Charlton pick demonstrates.
All approaches to building teams have hits and misses, as the Cooks trade also shows. But the set in stone approach used by Jones is a foolish consistency that has become the hobgoblin of his mindset. While some years can yield an absolute smash hit like Micah Parsons under his approach, there are also times when opportunities can be missed. Clearly things have not worked out for the Cowboys for decades now. And while we are throwing pithy misquotes around, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results reflects poorly on your mental process. Jones needs to recalibrate his approach. That is unfortunately highly unlikely given the way he seems entrenched in his stance, as well as the obstacle of his ego and stubborn clinging to the belief he is smarter than other NFL management.
While a radically different approach like that of the Rams has obviously paid off for them, it has also come a cropper for other teams. There is no one formula for success in the NFL. But Dallas should certainly consider modifying things. McClay has shown he can do a good job evaluating veteran talent as well, yielding finds like Jayron Kearse last year. It would be worth trying to let him find some targets in which to invest some draft capital and cap space. It just is not very likely.