It’s the second week in March, which means that it’s also the end of the NFL’s “league year.” The new league year kicks off with free agency, the first week of which will feature an unprecedented spending frenzy. This is due to a rising cap—each team will have $10 million more to spend than they did last year—and the fact that several teams have a considerable amount to spend to get over the minimum spending requirement mandated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Indeed, Jacksonville has more than $80 million to dole out in a bundle of big-money contracts, and Oakland must spend approximately $160 million on players in the next calendar year. In short, there will be crazy money spent, and teams like the Cowboys, who have far less to spend, will be unable to compete.
I believe this is a good thing. To make my point, allow me to begin with a brief history lesson: At the dawning of free agency, before teams learned how to manage the salary cap, meaning that they often had to let their best players onto the open market, NFL front offices were quick to sign big-ticket free agents who would upgrade their rosters.
Reggie White was, and remains, the poster child for such free agent dreams: he was instrumental not only in leading Green Bay to a Super Bowl, but in resuscitating the entire Packers organization.
Early in the new millennium, however, teams began to get on top of the cap, and were therefore capable of keeping their top players. Over the past decade and change, we have seen a new trend emerge. Rather than paying out big money for other teams' (admittedly talented) rejects, NFL front offices have begun to use free agency to fill roster holes by signing mid-level veterans.
They spend the big money to keep their home-grown talent - guys that are in the building every day, who they know they can rely on. The only organizations that continue to sign the big-ticket players are either out of control or feel that they are one player away.
As free agency approaches, we must keep this history in mind. Every February, we engage in the same exercise, drooling over the list of potential FAs, fantasizing about their feats of skill when wearing the star, only to be let down. "Darnit, Jerry," disappointed fans lament, "why won't you spend the money to make this team better? Don't you want to win?"
Indeed, Jerry does want to win, and IS spending the money. It's just that he's spending it on his own guys, doling out big money to keep them away from free agency. This is, in fact, precisely what the better organizations do, and the Cowboys, to their credit, have adopted this as an organizational model.
Although this behavior often frustrates fans, it has myriad benefits. Allow me to enumerate these.
Sane Practice: Since teams have become savvy about the cap, the only free agents that leave their original teams are those that the team no longer wants, not those they can't afford. In short, the people that know a player best have a compelling reason for no longer wanting his services.
They have seen how he practices, the way he interacts with teammates and coaches, how well he prepares during game weeks, or how much he has aged—and they have let him go. The result, then, is that the guys who are on the market are there for a reason: work ethic questions, undisclosed injury issues, declining skills, etc.
The “BPA” Draft: Since very few truly quality free agents hit the market, the surest way to build a playoff-caliber talent base is through the draft. What is interesting is that free agency can actually facilitate this process.
When he first ascended to the Cowboys head coaching position, Jason Garrett shared his talent acquisition strategy: use free agency to fill all the team's obvious holes - Garrett termed them "must haves" - so that the front office isn't handcuffed in the draft. The plan is to avoid being forced to draft a player at a specific position of need.
According to Garrett:
In a perfect world, what you want to do is to go into the draft without needs. I think you tend to draft worse when you say, "I think we need to draft this position or that position."...In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you're trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible.
If all of Dallas’ roster holes are filled with serviceable guys, the thinking goes, they can follow a purer "best player available" drafting strategy, and select a guy they never never thought would fall to them. Indeed, the 2014 draft offers as a salient example of this policy in action.
Although Zack Martin played a position where the Cowboys didn’t have a crying need—Ron Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau has been more than serviceable the last six games in 2013—he was the "best player available," and the Cowboys roster was vastly improved by choosing him.
Lease, Don’t Buy: The optimal situation is for teams to use free agency to fill soft spots in the roster with serviceable vets capable of serving as a "bridge" to a younger, cheaper, and more talented player in whom they want to invest for the long term.
In Dallas, we have seen this happen with Brodney Pool and Barry Church (2012), Will Allen and J.J. Wilcox (2013) and, in 2015, Jasper Brinkley and a slew of young linebackers. In each case, once the youngster emerged, the veteran was released.
The key is that the veteran free agent “bridge” be willing to accept the kind of contract that will allow the team to sever ties without any negative financial impact. Cutting Pool cost nothing; releasing Will Allen resulted in a $620,000 cap hit; and jettisoning Brinkley put 650,000 in dead money on the cap. While these hits certainly add up, we can look at them as premiums spent on "roster insurance."
Moreover, eating these low-risk contracts costs far less than cutting a high-priced free agent mistake; releasing free agent purchases Leonard Davis and Igor Olshansky in 2011 cost the team more than $5 million in dead money on their 2012 cap—a season in which they carried a whopping $22 million in dead money.
Compare that to the total dead money on their 2016 cap: $902, 744. That discrepancy is a direct result of sounder, more sober behavior in free agency; as a consequence, the Cowboys have more actual money to spend to keep their recently-drafted stars in house.
In the past few weeks, we have been shown a swelling list of available big-name free agents, many of whom the national media insist will be good fits in Dallas. When you see these, don't linger at the top; instead, work your way down the list a ways before you start imagining guys wearing the star, and bide your time as all the big-money contracts are announced.
After the initial spending frenzy, expect some value-driven shopping. Then, wait until April for the top-level talent (dare I say the "best players available"?) to come into the fold. That’s how the most consistently successful franchises approach the process.
For more salient points on the Cowboys as the NFL enters free agency, visit Shawn on Twitter @rabblerousr.