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Cowboys fee agents 2023: The downside of Dallas’ draft success

The Cowboys have reached a point where they will have to change some things, or stay stuck.

2023 NFL Pro Bowl Games
They’ve had some big hits in recent drafts, but has that created some tunnel vision?
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have some pretty set-in-concrete approaches to roster building. Simply put, their basic principles are:

  1. Lean almost exclusively on the draft.
  2. Reserve the bulk of your free agent money/cap space for re-signing your own.
  3. Always think long-term in building the roster.
  4. Do not spend big money or cap space on outside free agents,.

There are frequent complaints about how this approach has been a part of the recent era of mediocrity in Dallas. Now we may be seeing the team run smack into the upper limits of this approach.

This year the Cowboys have 25 of their 2022 roster entering free agency. (Two, Alec Lindstrom and Juanyeh Thomas, have already been signed to reserve/futures deals, but no one is expecting them to put this team over the top next year.) Of the remaining 23, five come from two draft classes:

  • 2018: Leighton Vander Esch, Dalton Schultz
  • 2019: Connor McGovern, Tony Pollard, Donovan Wilson

All of them were key contributors last season, and if there were no salary cap considerations, Dallas could make a case for re-signing all five. Two other big contributors that are pending free agents are Anthony Brown and Terence Steele (restricted), and they are also players the team could use back in the fold. Steele may be the simplest one for the team to manage, since as a former UDFA he is a restricted free agent and they can use a qualifying offer or tender to dissuade other teams from signing them and have control over his 2023 season. Brown is an interesting case in that he is coming to the end of his second deal with the Cowboys. Many people don’t think about the fact he is the third, somewhat forgotten member of the 2016 draft class still with the team. You know, the class that brought Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to them.

This is the unanticipated consequence of draft success. A couple or three successful years means you will hit this situation a few years later. Those players are coming off cheap rookie deals, and that has to be entered in the equation. That is doubly so for Dallas, where the cap is treated as much more of a hard limit than by other teams. Ideally, they would like to let many if not all of these free agents walk and just plug in a new draft pick for them. Unfortunately the odds of that working out are somewhere between none and more none.

But with Dallas already over the salary cap, they are going to have to make some hard decisions about that. They can throw caution to the wind and let most of these free agents walk and just try to go back to the draft well again, they can pony up the pie and sign four or five of these to give them a better core of talent for this year, or they can let them go and try to plug more holes with outside free agents.

A betting man would say that the team will not sign more than three of these names back, with Steele being one. They will sign some James Washington-type bargain free agents while pointing to Prescott’s contract as why they cannot take anything resembling a plunge in free agency. They they will try to fill all the holes left in the draft and even with UDFAs. They will have some successes, perhaps even as good as Tyler Smith, but will also have a Jalen Tolbert or two in there, players that will make little to no contribution their rookie seasons.

All of this ties into the “long-term” view the Cowboys have. They prefer to use draft picks to roster build because they have four years’ control with low cost deals. They like to re-sign their own because they see those as known quantities. They hate using free agency because those tend to be one- or two-year mercenaries, which gives them little to no control. Dallas simply wants to plan their roster out three to four years in advance and work from that blueprint.

The only problem is that the NFL doesn’t work that way. When you draft a hotshot rookie, you have no idea if he is going to be a successful contributor to your team in four years. You don’t even know if he is going to play a down. Injuries are the great dread, and they happen all the time. There is also the small but not zero chance of them having an off-field incident that derails their career. But the biggest concern is that they are to some degree a bust, or do not make an immediate impact. This is especially true in the first year of their career. Pollard is seen as one of the top priorities to retain, but he barely could get on the field as a rookie. That is not always a reflection of the player’s ability to contribute. There are unfortunately politics within a football team, and sometimes a player gets more snaps over a more productive one because, just to name a completely hypothetical example, he cost the team the fourth overall pick and is on a huge contract extension.

Long-term planning in the NFL is looking for a payoff in two, three, or four seasons. The players you are dependent on for those future years face so many obstacles in delivering. It is more likely that you have to scrap or really rework your plan at some point. Adjustments, some major, should be anticipated yearly.

The Jones family, who make these kinds of decisions for the team, will almost certainly never change their approach, the only way to win the big prize is to try for it this year, every year. The conservation of the pie Stephen Jones talks about is a direct refutation of that idea. He is looking to use that money on future contracts that may become irrelevant. Further, the team holds onto its players too long at times. Not to pick on Elliott, but he is a prime example of over-investing in a position, because ownership insists on valuing him for other things than his effectiveness on the field. The NFL is a harsh and unfair business, and no one can blame Elliott for grabbing every penny he can. That doesn’t change the fact he is a horrible return on the investment of his current deal.

The way to manage a roster is to start each year as a clean sheet, and do as much as possible to make it as good as possible for each season. That not only includes being good at drafting and investing in free agency more than the Cowboys do, but also looking unflinchingly at the returning players and cutting deadwood whenever you can. Ignore how they were acquired or what has already been paid. Those are sunk costs, and should never be considered. Make a cold-hearted evaluation of who, based on what you know from last season/age/health considerations, is going to be an asset, and move on from the rest. Then use all your resources to add the talent needed to upgrade.

Had the Cowboys suffered some consecutive bad years, they might actually try this. But since Will McClay has become so important to the team, they have managed to alternate between off years and partial success, in double-digit wins. This has led to the mistaken belief that their ‘draft first, retain your own players partly because of those sunken draft costs, and eschew big free agent moves’ approach is working. It actually isn’t. It gets them to a certain level, but they clearly have not been able to take the final couple of steps.

It is great that the Cowboy have had some real wins in the draft in the past several years, and we should absolutely hope that continues. But it is a limited approach without the other needed elements. And it is important to accept the risk of falling off when things don’t work out. It seems apparent that the current mindset of the ownership is too concerned with not slipping too far, resulting in, as Jerry Jones has said, being content with a kind of high level mediocrity. That cautious approach keeps them from taking the necessary risks to fully succeed. To see the benefits of doing so, they only need look at their beloved division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles. They won their first Lombardi Trophy ever just six years ago, but by 2020 had pretty much fallen on hard times. Yet, Howie Roseman used every tool at his disposal, and in just two years have them back in the Super Bowl again.

Jerry Jones says he is a risk taker, but in truth seems to have lost that edge. Stephen never has had it. We can keep hoping it changes. It just seems a faint one.

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