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:
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.
|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|
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?
|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|
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:
|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|
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:
|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|
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:
|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|
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.