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11 mistakes in free agency the Cowboys tend to avoid

Desperate teams tend to make these mistakes—Dallas usually avoids them.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

March 13, 2023, starts the legal tampering period around the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t known to be considerable spenders in free agency, and for a good reason. The front office is hyper-focused on drafting and developing their talent.

The last time the Cowboys handed out a five-year contract to a free agent was to cornerback Brandon Carr in 2012 for $50.1 million. Since then, Dallas has signed very few players to deals over three years.

History suggests players who sign for four years don’t work out in the lone star state.

  • 2014: DT Henry Melton signed for four years for $27.5 million, by February 2015, the Cowboys declined his three-year option, and Melton was a Cowboy for one season.
  • 2016: DT Cedric Thornton signed for four years for $17 million, he was released before the start of the 2017 season.
  • 2017: WR Terrance Williams signed a contract for four years worth $17 million. He had 568 yards and zero touchdowns in ‘17, got suspended for three games in 2018, and played in two games before fracturing his foot. The Cowboys declined his option at the start of 2019.
  • *2020: DT Gerald McCoy signed a contract for three years worth $18.3 million. After getting hurt in training camp, Dallas got out of his contract due to an injury clause. He never played a preseason snap.

* - not four years, but equally bad

After writing out the list above, one mistake should be for Dallas to never invest in free agent defensive tackles, but unfortunately, it’s not one of them. Ten of these mistakes listed below come from The Athletic Football Show with Robert Mays and Nate Tice.

In the episode, both talk about how NFL teams usually fall for the same bait in free agency that winds up leaving eggs on their face. They give ten examples, but with the Cowboys under the microscope of this exercise, I made an 11th one appear just for them.

Before Dallas considers handing out new contracts, here are 11 mistakes they have shown to avoid.

11. Don’t offer record setting contracts to your own players before they hit free agency.

This mistake comes before free agency with teams trying to outsmart the market, but the Cowboys have been bitten a few times going this direction. Extending defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, linebacker Jaylon Smith, and running back Ezekiel Elliott before they were due for new contracts has yet to look good in hindsight.

Crawford signed a five-year extension for $45 million a year before he was set to hit the open market. The Cowboys hoped they’d get him for a bargain if his production took off the following season like it was supposed to. Crawford was consistent and would have at least four sacks over the next three seasons, but he never lived up to the expectation of the contract.

Smith was entering the final year of his rookie deal when the Cowboys offered him a six-year contract for $68.4 million. This one aged like cottage cheese, and Smith was never the same player after his 2019 Pro Bowl season. Dallas released him two seasons into the deal.

Elliott’s contract hasn’t helped the Cowboys financially, but he has still shown to be more valuable than the other two names listed. However, outside of the year he signed the deal in 2019, Elliott has eclipsed 1,000 yards once in three seasons. While he remains a veteran leader and a face of the franchise, it’s come to a point where his contract is too much, and the Cowboys will need to renegotiate the deal, or he might be released.

Dallas’ best trait has become drafting and developing. Re-signing players before their contracts run out could be good value, but the Cowboys need to pick the right guys to hand out extensions. Since Elliott’s deal, they’ve shown better restraint.

10. Don’t be tempted with the “win with quarterback.”

Fortunately for the Cowboys, they don’t need to worry about this for a few more seasons. Mays and Tice connected this mistake to what the New Orleans Saints have done with signing Derek Carr and the Minnesota Vikings signing Kirk Cousins.

Both teams believed their rosters to be “one player away” at the quarterback position and gave up a chunk of their salary cap to get middle their quarterback play. The Cowboys have been lucky enough to avoid this scenario, with Tony Romo and Prescott being the quarterback back-to-back. Prescott had a down 2022 season in which one could argue he’s a top 15 NFL quarterback, but he’s shown to be top ten for most of his career.

The front office has talked about extending Prescott to be their franchise guy for the foreseeable future and lowering his current cap hit. Now if the front office doesn’t believe in Prescott being in their plans for the future and he, along with Mike McCarthy, are gone after a 7-10 season, then this could be a mistake they make in 2024.

9. Understand what you’re buying/Don’t try and fit a square-peg into a round hole.

One example brought up in the episode was the New York Jets signing wide receiver Corey Davis to a three-year, $37.5 million to be their No. 1 wideout. To that point, Davis had one good season with the Tennessee Titans, which elevated his market.

The Jets gambled that he could become a No. 1 guy, but should have realized he would be a great No. 2 option. Tice said many teams use the line “oh, he’ll figure it out” when they make a move like this, betting on the player.

The Carr deal for Dallas in 2012 was similar to the Davis example, with him getting paid CB1 money when he was a solid second cornerback. However, this is a financial risk that the Cowboys don’t tend to make when bringing in outside free agents.

Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. was brought in on a one-year deal for $3 million, knowing that Dan Quinn had familiarity with the player and had a plan for him. Dallas didn’t expect him to be their premier pass rusher but a complement to Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence.

8. Beware the “top of market” cornerback contract.

On Sunday, cornerback Jalen Ramsey was traded to the Miami Dolphins for a third-round pick and a third-string tight end. Many fans are upset because Diggs and Ramsey would have been a great cornerback tandem. However, Ramsey wanted a new contract despite three years remaining on his current deal.

Again, learning from their mistakes, the Cowboys have not paid a cornerback a record-setting contract since Carr. They had the opportunity to with Byron Jones hitting free agency in 2020, but understood his market would be way out of their price range.

Mays talks about how the cornerback position is volatile in that it’s rare to find a player to be elite season after season. Ramsey is an exception, but J.C. Jackson and Jones are reasons to avoid this mistake. Jones went on to sign a record-setting contract with the Dolphins for five years worth $82.5 million. The former Cowboys first-round pick has played just two seasons in Miami, recording two interceptions. After being released this month for the Dolphins to save money, he will now be a free agent.

While Ramsey going for a third-round pick is a tough pill to swallow, the Cowboys will need to re-sign Trevon Diggs, also an All-Pro cornerback, to an extension soon. Since Diggs was a second-round pick, he will enter the final year of his rookie deal with no fifth-year option. Dallas can sign him now, but it remains to be seen what his market will be.

If the Cowboys draft a cornerback in the first round of the 2023 draft, it might signal their willingness to move on from Diggs in 2024, knowing the odds of a large contract panning out don’t always work.

7. When a player is around 30 coming off their worst season, believe them.

Great examples of this mistake in action were the contracts given to wide receiver Allen Robinson and linebacker Bobby Wagner. Both players were signed by the Los Angeles Rams in 2022, hoping they could be the pieces needed to return to the Super Bowl.

However, their contracts didn’t match the production they had the year before signing in Los Angeles. Wagner is the better of the two, but 2021 was his worst season in Seattle by most advanced metrics. The Rams were hoping for more, and they got it, but his contract was too high of a cap hit, so they released him after one season.

Robinson’s drop in production with the Chicago Bears was hoped to be because of the poor quarterback play. It turns out age might have caught up to him. Robinson played in ten games with the Rams before getting injured and under 400 yards receiving.

Where teams can avoid the mistake, like the Cowboys tend to do, is in the field of mercenary players—expecting them to come in for one season and play high at a low cost.

Dallas did this with Randall Cobb, Aldon Smith, Andy Dalton, Malik Hooker, Dante Fowler, and Leighton Vander Esch. All players came in for one season on a budget and then left the following season.

Vander Esch and Fowler are still up in the air, and Hooker proved enough to get a two-year deal, but for a bargain.

6. Don’t be afraid to think smaller (price) at tight end.

The tight end position has proven to be one of the areas where players don’t develop until the end of their rookie deal or until their second contract. When teams draft tight ends in the first round, the bust rate is high because the expectations never meet their draft position (Eric Ebron, T. J. Hockenson, yden Hurst).

Dallas drafted Dalton Schultz in the fourth round, and it took him until year three to really become the player the Cowboys were hoping for. It earned him an $11 million contract on the franchise tag in 2022, but Dallas might let Schultz walk after another solid season.

They have Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot on the roster, but why not take a flyer on a veteran tight end for a lower cost? Mays mentions how the Bengals signed Hurst to a one-year deal for $3.5 million, and he ended up having a career season for being on his third team. If the Cowboys can find a player like that to pair with Ferguson and Hendershot, they might find genuine value for a position important in McCarthy’s West Coast offense.

5. You’re paying for snaps, not luxury players.

The Cowboys avoid this mistake, along with another on the list, and turn them into their golden rules of free agency. They don’t want to reset the free agent market if they can take a player’s hefty contract and apply it elsewhere.

More recently, Dallas decided to part ways with Amari Cooper and saw Randy Gregory walk out the door in 2021. Now they were willing to re-sign Gregory, but it proved to work in favor of the Cowboys.

Jerry Jones talked about using their money and signing deals with Dorance Armstrong, Leighton Vander Esch, Dante Fowler, Anthony Barr, and Carlos Watkins. None of these players were the best at their position in 2022, but they all contributed meaningful snaps to the success of the Cowboys last season.

Whether fans like to hear it or not, Mays and Tice mention this is ideally the way to build a team—getting the most out of your free agent signings and bringing blue-chip players on the roster through the draft. Dallas s used this model perfectly and will look to do so again in 2023.

4. Injured players stay injured

Tice brings up how a player like defensive end Marcus Davenport will look to get paid big money this offseason. Even though he hasn’t shown an ability to stay healthy, he plays a premiere position a team will be willing to bet on. It’s fool’s gold.

When Gregory was in Dallas, he dealt with injuries and off-the-field issues tt never allowed him to play for an entire season. Dodging a bullet by letting him walk, the Denver Broncos nded him a ton of money, and he only played six games in 2022, collecting two sacks.

The Cowboys have taken chances on injured players in the past but don’t offer a king’s ransom for their services. When Malik Hooker signed with Dallas in 2021, it was for one-year, $920,000. The two-year extension they gave him last offseason was for $7 million.

Even when Dallas’ offense needed a boost to their wide receiver depth at the end of the season, they signed T.Y. Hilton to an $800,000 deal, hoping he would stay healthy to be low cost, high reward.

It’ll be interesting to see where Vander Esch falls into this category and if the Cowboys pay a lot of money to keep him in Dallas. He is another player that struggles with staying healthy, so fans will see a real-time account of if they can avoid making this mistake.

3. You’re not special, the mega off-ball linebacker deal will not be worth it.

Some deals referenced in the episode were to Corey Littleton and Joe Schobert, who got paid a lot of money to be “okay” additions to their teams. The Cowboys made the mistake with Jaylon Smith and should be staying away from that deal for some time.

Vander Esch will be a test in this category as Dallas still needs help at the linebacker position with their depth. However, the front office has given veterans minimum deals for one season to fill this void (Justin Durant, Keanu Neal). Plus, they've Damone Clark to develop.

What will be interesting is where Micah Parsons falls when he needs a new deal. Mays and Tice mention how, outside of running back, the outside linebacker position takes a beating in the NFL.

Parsons plays the majority of his time at defensive end but has the build of an outside linebacker like he was at Penn State. For parts of 2022, Parsons did not look like the same player and talked about how he was dealing with injuries.

Now, you bet on a player like Parsons to give the Cowboys all he s every Sunday, but will his positional build hold up to him playing full-time at defensive end? Will it affect his contract negotiations come 2024 or 2025?

2. Beware the name brands when you can whip something together from the bottom shelf.

The strength of the Cowboys’ approach to free agency has been to find valuable players from the bottom shelf. This, plus rule number five above, are their golden rules. This particular mistake is the most significant criticism fans have of Dallas’ front office—they don’t swing for the fences; they just shop at the dollar store.

While true, they've found role players to become meaningful additions for one or two years. Jayron Kearse is the prime example. He’s a player who, when he was signed, it wasn’t even a blip on the radar. Kearse earned a second contract in Dallas and became a leader for Dan Quinn’s defense.

Durant is another name mentioned above who was worth more than his contract. In 2014, in the second year of the $2.4 million deal he signed with the Cowboys, Sean Lee went down for the season in a freak accident. Given the circumstances, Durant and cast-off Rolando McClain proved to fill the void for Dallas admirably.

The Cowboys rarely hand out a deal over two years to a player outside their draft picks. It's a credit to the pro personnel department for finding value where other teams aren’t looking. In return, it allows the Cowboys to keep drafting and pay premier players like Diggs, Lamb, and Parsons when it’s time.

1. Beware the one-year wonder.

Dallas has avoided this mistake with players who played well in a contract season—Byron Jones, Rolando McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Morris Claiborne, Cameron Fleming, Aldon Smith, Randy Gregory, and potentially Leighton Vander Esch.

The biggest one-year wonder was DeMarco Murry, the league’s leading rusher and Offensive Player of the Year in 2014. He wanted to be paid a lot of money, but the Cowboys were unwilling to match what he was asking for, so he signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Murray had one of his worst statistical seasons in 2015 and was traded to the Tennessee Titans for a fourth-round pick the following season. Coming full circle, the last time the Cowboys bet on a one-year wonder and lost was with Carr. Since then, the team has remained disciplined to move on or not sign players if the price is too high. It could happen with Odell Beckm Jr., who is still looking for $20 million a year, and our lasting memory is the playoff run with the Rams.

One name the Cowboys will need to decide on is Donovan Wilson. Is he the player fans saw last season during his career campaign, or is he just a one-year wonder? With Quinn returning to coach the defense, the odds favor a repeat year, given it’s the same scheme. Wide receiver Noah Brown is another name where he had his best season as a pro, so will he be looking for a long-term deal that prices himself out of Dallas?

The Cowboys don’t spend aggressively in free agency, but their history has shown it to be for a good reason. Their moves aren’t making headlines, but by doing just enough, it allows the Will McClay to draft the best players available in May. While some NFL teams frequent this list, Dallas s learned from these mistakes and it had course-corrected them to be better for it.

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