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Only 3 of 15 Cowboys players with highest 2022 cap hits are free agent acquisitions

The Cowboys take that “building though the draft” thing pretty seriously.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

One of the concepts we hear and read about during draft season is “building through the draft”; how important it is, how it’s the key to success in the NFL, how dynasties are built off it, blah, blah, blah. But is ‘building through the draft’ still a relevant concept today, or is it more or less a relic from pre-free agency days? And what’s the alternative to building through the draft, “building through free agency”?

Teams that invest heavily in free agency don’t always see a good return on their investment (Albert Haynesworth says ”Hi”), but that doesn’t mean that “building through free agency” is necessarily wrong - especially if your team’s drafts have not produced the hoped-for results. Some might even argue that the draft and free agency should be used as dual avenues to improve the team and that a choice acquisition (or two) in free agency might be all it needs for the team to move to the next level.

To see where the Cowboy stand on this draft vs free agency continuum, a look at the 15 top cap hits on the 2022 Cowboys roster is in order. Surprisingly or not, only three of the top 15 Cowboys players (as measured by their 2022 cap hit) joined the Cowboys as free agents after playing for another NFL team. Here’s an overview:

Rank Player POS Cap Hit
1 Dak Prescott QB 19.7
2 Ezekiel Elliott RB 18.2
3 Tyron Smith LT 17.5
4 DeMarcus Lawrence DE 14.0
5 Zack Martin G 12.0
6 Dalton Schultz TE 10.9
7 Anthony Brown CB 6.5
8 Jourdan Lewis CB 4.6
9 Michael Gallup WR 4.5
10 Micah Parsons ILB 3.9
11 CeeDee Lamb WR 3.8
12 Jayron Kearse S 3.7
13 Dorance Armstrong DE 3.4
14 Tarell Basham DE 3.0
15 Dante Fowler DE 2.9

Jayron Kearse, Tarell Basham, and Dante Fowler are the only former free agents to show up in the top 15 for the Cowboys, and just barely. Sure, the Cowboys have many more former free agents, but none of them appear in the top 15 cap list.

Still, for a team that’s annually linked to almost every big-name free agent that hits the market - or is still left on the market (Jadeveon Clowney says “Hi”) - having just three free agents in their top 15 feels like a pretty low number. To find out, we ran the same exercise for the three other NFC East teams to get a feel for how they compare to the Cowboys.

Giants Eagles Commanders
Player POS Cap Hit Player POS Cap Hit Player POS Cap Hit
Leonard Williams DE 27.3 Javon Hargrave DT 17.8 Carson Wentz QB 28.3
Kenny Golladay WR 21.2 Lane Johnson RT 15.8 William Jackson CB 13.8
Adoree' Jackson CB 9.3 Darius Slay CB 10.1 Curtis Samuel WR 12.6
Andrew Thomas LT 8.8 Brandon Graham DE 9.4 Kendall Fuller CB 11.1
Daniel Jones QB 8.4 Jason Kelce C 8.0 Chase Roullier C 9.9
Blake Martinez ILB 7.7 Isaac Seumalo G 7.7 Jonathan Allen DT 9.5
Saquon Barkley RB 7.2 Brandon Brooks G 7.1 Chase Young DE 9.4
Sterling Shepard WR 6.3 A.J. Brown WR 5.6 Da'Ron Payne DT 8.5
Kayvon Thibodeaux DE 5.7 Derek Barnett DE 5.4 Charles Leno LT 8.5
Evan Neal T 4.5 Jake Elliott K 5.1 Logan Thomas TE 6.2
Dexter Lawrence DT 4.2 DeVonta Smith WR 4.6 Wes Schweitzer G 5.8
Mark Glowinski G 3.3 Jordan Mailata LT 4.4 Montez Sweat DE 3.7
Kadarius Toney WR 3.1 Haason Reddick OLB 4.0 Taylor Heinicke QB 3.6
Nick Gates C 3.0 Fletcher Cox DT 4.0 Jamin Davis LB 3.1
Graham Gano K 2.9 Andre Dillard LT 3.9 Tress Way POS 3.1
101.4 90.8 105.6

Washington (nine free agents), the Giants (six), and Eagles (six), whether by chance or by design, have all built teams that rely much more on outside talent, be it in the form of free agents, players brought in via trade, waiver wire pick ups, etc. And that difference is especially pronounced at the top of their roster.

This can be a viable option, of course, as it doesn’t say anywhere in the NFL rule book that you have to build through the draft exclusively.

On to another set of teams: Did either of last year’s Super Bowl participants perhaps provide a template for team building in the modern NFL? The Rams last had a first-round pick in 2016 (Jared Goff says “Hi”) and have since earned a reputation for signing tons of big-name free agents. The Bengals have traditionally been considered a team that embraced the idea of building through the draft. Are these narratives reflected in the make up of their 2022 Top 15?

Rams Bengals
Aaron Donald DT 26.8 Trey Hendrickson DE 14.5
Jalen Ramsey CB 23.2 D.J. Reader DT 13.7
Cooper Kupp WR 18.7 Jessie Bates III S 12.9
Matthew Stafford QB 13.5 Joe Mixon RB 11.4
Rob Havenstein RT 9.6 Tyler Boyd WR 10.1
A'Shawn Robinson DT 9.5 Joe Burrow QB 9.9
Tyler Higbee TE 8.1 B.J. Hill DT 8.3
Leonard Floyd OLB 8.0 Vonn Bell FS 7.5
Allen Robinson WR 4.3 Chidobe Awuzie CB 7.3
Joseph Noteboom T 3.5 Sam Hubbard DE 7.2
Andrew Whitworth LT 3.3 Ja'Marr Chase WR 7.0
Taylor Rapp SS 2.9 Alex Cappa G 6.8
David Edwards T 2.9 Jonah Williams LT 5.6
Greg Gaines DT 2.7 Mike Hilton CB 5.0
Matt Gay K 2.5 Ted Karras C 5.0
139.5 132.2

Not really. Both teams have eight players on their roster that previously played for other teams. The high-spending, free-agent acquiring Rams and the frugal, draft-focused Bengals are indistinguishable in how their Top 15 is constructed.

Two more teams to look at: The Packers have built an entire franchise mythology around retaining their own players, and traditionally didn’t bring in outside help very often. Former Packers GM Ron Wolf explains:

“In the long run,” Wolf said, “it’s better to keep your own players. So I guess you could say that, in my opinion, it’s better to build through the draft. When I was here [in Green Bay], I used trades and the waiver wire quite a bit. Once we kind of got it settled, we did everything in our power to keep our own.”

The Steelers are another team that seems to have embraced the idea of building through the draft. Here’s what the Top 15 for the Packers and Steelers looks like:

Packers Steelers
Player POS Cap Hit Player POS Cap Hit
Aaron Rodgers QB 28.5 T.J. Watt OLB 31.1
David Bakhtiari LT 13.4 Cameron Heyward DT 17.4
Preston Smith OLB 11.5 Stephon Tuitt DE 14.0
Kenny Clark DT 10.0 Minkah Fitzpatrick FS 10.6
Dean Lowry DE 8.1 Devin Bush ILB 6.0
Adrian Amos FS 7.3 Cameron Sutton CB 5.2
Jaire Alexander CB 7.1 Chris Boswell K 4.9
Aaron Jones RB 5.9 Myles Jack ILB 4.8
Rashan Gary OLB 5.1 Derek Watt FB 4.7
Mason Crosby K 4.7 Chuks Okorafor T 4.3
Elgton Jenkins LT 4.7 James Daniels G 4.2
Marcedes Lewis TE 4.5 Mason Rudolph QB 4.0
De'Vondre Campbell OLB 4.2 Mitchell Trubisky QB 3.7
Randall Cobb WR 4.1 Tyson Alualu DE 3.5
Allen Lazard WR 4.0 Joe Haeg RT 3.1
123.1 121.5

So those narratives don’t hold up to scrutiny either. Both teams have a historic reputation for developing their own talent, and that reputation may be kept alive by some of the superstar players at the top of their rosters, but the Packers have six players on their roster acquired from other teams, the Steelers have eight.

So that gives us seven teams that all have a substantially different roster make up than the Cowboys. Are the Cowboys the odd one out here?

If you loosely define “success” in the NFL as winning your division, that would give us eight teams to look at for a “successful” roster building strategy. We’ve already covered four 2022 division winners with the Cowboys, Rams, Bengals, and Packers, which leaves four to go: The Bills, Chiefs, Titans, and Bucs. Here’s what their Top 15s look like, starting with the Bills and Chiefs:

Bills Chiefs
Player POS Cap Hit Player POS Cap Hit
Tre'Davious White CB 16.4 Patrick Mahomes QB 35.8
Josh Allen QB 16.4 Chris Jones DT 29.4
Tremaine Edmunds ILB 12.7 Orlando Brown Jr. T 16.7
Dion Dawkins LT 12.7 Frank Clark DE 13.7
Stefon Diggs WR 11.7 Travis Kelce TE 8.9
Jordan Poyer SS 10.8 Joe Thuney G 8.2
Mitch Morse C 8.0 M. Valdes-Scantling WR 4.9
Ed Oliver DT 6.3 Justin Reid S 4.6
Micah Hyde SS 5.7 Mecole Hardman WR 4.4
Von Miller OLB 5.2 Harrison Butker K 4.2
Matt Milano OLB 4.9 Chad Henne QB 3.3
Taron Johnson CB 4.5 Juan Thornhill FS 3.1
Rodger Saffold G 4.2 Clyde Edwards-Helaire RB 3.0
DaQuan Jones DT 3.6 JuJu Smith-Schuster WR 2.9
Jordan Phillips DE 3.5 Derrick Nnadi DT 2.8
126.6 145.9

Not much luck if you’re looking for affirmation for the Cowboys’ strategy, the Bills and Chiefs both have eight players signed from other teams. On to the Titans and Bucs:

Titans Bucs
Player POS Cap Hit Player POS Cap Hit
Ryan Tannehill QB 38.6 Donovan Smith LT 18.4
Bud Dupree OLB 19.2 Lavonte David OLB 14.8
Derrick Henry RB 15.0 Tom Brady QB 11.9
Taylor Lewan LT 14.7 Mike Evans WR 10.3
Robert Woods WR 10.0 Devin White ILB 9.5
Denico Autry DE 8.7 Carlton Davis CB 8.3
Kevin Byard FS 7.1 Shaquil Barrett OLB 7.8
Harold Landry OLB 5.1 Shaq Mason G 7.4
Jeffery Simmons DE 4.0 Russell Gage WR 5.7
Zach Cunningham ILB 4.0 Chris Godwin WR 5.0
Ben Jones C 3.4 Ryan Succop K 4.5
Caleb Farley CB 3.1 Tristan Wirfs RT 4.4
Nate Davis G 3.0 Ryan Jensen C 4.0
Brett Kern P 2.8 Vita Vea DT 3.8
Amani Hooker FS 2.7 Leonard Fournette RB 3.7
141.4 119.5

Not much different here either, with both teams showing seven players in their top 15.

Which brings us back to the Cowboys. The Cowboys of the last decade or so are a team that values retaining its own draft picks, and that re-signed a small armada of former draft picks to second contracts. But is that the right strategy? In today’s NFL, the evidence here suggests the Cowboys may be pursuing an outdated model for team building.

“Building through the draft” may have been a thing 30 years ago. Today, teams continue to build through the draft as much as they can, but successful teams aggressively use free agency too. And for these teams, free agency is not just about patching roster holes left over from the draft, but it is about acquiring key talent that can elevate the team to the next level.

Over the last eight years, the Cowboys have been to the playoffs four times, but they were never good enough to take that next step in the playoffs. In the meantime, they are being lapped left and right by teams that were perennial losers just a few years ago.

The Cowboys may think their slow and steady approach of building through the draft will win them the race eventually, but it’s the teams that go hard and fast in free agency that are winning in the NFL today.

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