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NFL trends in the draft and free agency, and how the Cowboys are missing out

The Cowboys would be wise to heed what’s going around the league.

Minnesota Vikings v Dallas Cowboys
Laugh it up.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Let’s start with a little self-reflection. Over the past decade plus, I have written somewhere over 3000 articles here about the Dallas Cowboys. From the very beginning, a common topic has been trying to figure out how the one constant in all that time, the leadership and management of the franchise by the Jones family, was doing things and how successful or not they were. Since all that comes from a distance without direct access to the team, it’s a combination of watching the games and synthesizing any news to glean insight. While others may disagree, I think I have done a fairly decent job of presenting things and noting what is constant and what evolves. Frankly, the direction forward now is troubling as Stephen Jones has gained more and more power and his father Jerry has become more of a figurehead, and prolific, if undisciplined, spokesman.

The Albert Breer post at SI about what he heard from GMs and executives around the league following this year’s NFL Draft was a gold mine. But the implications for Dallas are not exactly something to treasure.

One thing that several of the executives touched on was the sudden inflation of the wide receiver market.

NFC executive: “The receiver market is bananas, as reflected in free agency. The draft is the only way to get a starting-level WR cheap now. … People are crazy to get them—look what the Lions and Packers gave up. And 10 years ago, you were lucky if a rookie receiver could get to 500 yards, few got even close to 1,000. Now, they’re good and cheap on those rookie deals. Seven receivers in the second round, 13 of the first 54 picks were receivers, almost a quarter of the picks.”

At first glance, this looks like an endorsement of the approach the Cowboys are taking, staying out of the high end of the free agent market despite a real need. They got what seems like good value with Jalen Tolbert in the third round of the draft. One of their few outside signings was James Washington. He is hardly a top-tier wide receiver, but they got him for peanuts and he will be in immediate contention for a starting job alongside Tolbert and CeeDee Lamb until Michael Gallup is ready to return from his injury.

However, as you are probably well aware, they were in the situation of needing to fill a starting job because of their own handling of Amari Cooper. That has been rated as one of the worst free agent moves of the year by an outside observer. While Jerry is seen as the loose cannon in dealing with the media, as evidenced by his strange flaunting of the top of the Cowboys’ draft board, Stephen was also guilty of letting too much slip in his talk months ago about the issue of Cooper’s cap hit if retained. As a result, it can be argued that revelation tanked the trade value and the team had to settle for what turned out to be essentially a fifth-round pick.

There was no reason for this. A clear example of what could have been involves the trade our beloved division rivals the Philadelphia Eagles made with the Tennessee Titans to acquire A.J. Brown.

NFC executive: “The fact that Philly and Tennessee were able to keep the A.J. Brown stuff quiet, and Philly was able to work out an extension with A.J. within the days/hours leading up to the draft, is another reason to tip your cap to how creative Philly is. We are starting to see the price of receivers climb. With that being said, teams who don’t want to pay will be more inclined to trade them before their deals are up, to get value. Which bubble bursts first? The housing market or receiver market!?”

My take: On the first point, I’d add that the NFL remains a relationship business (I believe most businesses are relationship businesses), and I don’t think that deal happens without a strong relationship between Titans GM Jon Robinson and Eagles GM Howie Roseman, and between Roseman and CAA agents Tory Dandy and Jimmy Sexton. And yeah, the Eagles get a ton of points for continuing to work in a forward-thinking way (which we detailed Monday).

The Eagles got a rising starting receiver that the Cowboys now have to face twice a year, and the Titans used the extra first-round pick to nab Treylon Burks, who is a much cheaper option. It could easily turn into a win-win deal.

The comments Breer made about the role the relationship between the two GMs played in getting this done completely off the radar is important for Dallas. There have been reports that the Jones family is held in low regard around the league. They come across as arrogant and thinking they are the smartest guys in the room. They throw their weight around as the most financially successful and influential franchise in a way that angers others. Add that to their well-documented inability to keep their mouths shut about what they are planning to do and there is basically no chance they could pull off something like this in secret.

Another disturbing thing from the article was a trend where the Cowboys to have taken the wrong approach.

NFC exec: “The traditional process of picking players and building through draft has shifted—it’s more of a win-now feel amongst teams with limited regard for future wage increases. New market of WR money and QB money has teams trading more future assets to try to take advantage of the now.”

That is exactly the opposite of what Stephen is doing. He has an obsessive concern for future cap costs, and is loathe to trade away future draft picks that he frankly overvalues. Add in his abhorrence for paying top level free agents, and he has willingly handicapped his team in roster building. Both free agency and the draft are tools for the team to use. He has chosen to use one almost all the time while letting the other rust in the toolbox. The cap continues to grow and make deals look better over time. Cooper’s new contract with the Cleveland Browns suddenly looks much better after the flurry of big WR deals handed out the past few days. Dak Prescott’s money, once decried as too expensive, likewise now seems much more of a bargain as other quarterbacks get paid. What Dallas fails to do is get deals done earlier than later. They have repeatedly let things get down to the wire, driving up the cost of the contracts, rather than locking up players at what would be more affordable rates. Prescott himself is a prime exhibit of this.

The Cowboys can do things that exploit some of the things mentioned, as the original trade to get Cooper shows. But that was the exception for them, while it has now become a large part of the strategy of other teams.

My take: This is more of a big-picture offseason storyline than it is a draft-day one, no question—and it can be proven out in that eight teams came into the weekend without a first rounder, with seven such picks dealt for veteran players.

• The Broncos gave up the ninth pick in the Russell Wilson trade.

• The Seahawks gave up the 10th pick in the Jamal Adams trade.

• The Browns gave up the 13th pick in the Deshaun Watson trade.

• The Colts gave up the 16th pick in the Carson Wentz trade.

• The Raiders gave up the 23rd pick in the Davante Adams trade.

• The Dolphins gave up the 29th pick in the Tyreek Hill trade.

• The Rams gave up the 32nd pick in the Matthew Stafford trade.

Not all of those will work out - but some, like the Stafford deal, will. There is no cost too high to pay for a Lombardi Trophy.

The Cowboys insist on taking a long-term view in a league where entire rosters can turn over in two or three seasons. The NFL is a short-term world. Players mostly have a narrow window of top performance. Trying to plan for three or four years down the road ignores how rapidly things change and assumptions are obliterated.

While that certainly applies to some of the things that we learned from this year’s draft and free agency, much of the league is clearly doing things quite differently than Dallas. It leaves the Cowboys as followers rather than leaders, or just missing out completely. They insist on doing things their way with no discernable attempt to learn from what is going on across the NFL. For decades now, their approach has yielded only disappointment. We hope things will change on the field, but as long as the ownership insists on keeping their hands-on approach and archaic mindset, that is not very likely.