Phillips: Cowboys' Rep As Carefree Free Agency Spenders Is Overrated

IRVING, Texas – Man, check out the checks the Cowboys have dished out in recent years:

Six years, $108 million.

Eight years, $110 million.

Five years, $70 million.

Five years, $50 million.

Five years, $45 million.

Six years, $42 million.

Five years, $37 million.

Those are top seven contracts on the roster. Yeah, it's a lot of lettuce. Everyone knows Jerry Jones isn't afraid to spend money with the expectation of fielding a competitive football team. That's why the Cowboys have been regarded by many since the days of Deion Sanders as carefree free agency spenders, willing to jump in with both feet for the market's biggest fish.

The truth is, it's not an accurate depiction of this front office.

Back in 1995 that label might have had some legs. Free agency was in its infancy, and Dallas made national waves prying away Sanders from the rival 49ers with, back then, a monster five-year, $30 million deal.

As the current roster stands, though…

Those above-mentioned top seven contracts? Only one was a free agent signing: Brandon Carr in 2012 (five years, $50 million). The rest, in descending order: Tony Romo, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee and Jason Witten. All were former draft picks, or in Romo's case, a former rookie free agent who began his NFL career with a $10,000 signing bonus out of Eastern Illinois in 2003.

Free agency begins March 9, and it might surprise some to hear executive vice president Stephen Jones say quite candidly that he doesn't prefer spending big on the open market.

"Unfortunately, good players get paid like they're great players, average players get paid like they're good players and it's a domino effect," Jones said last week from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "It's not a great way to put your team together."

He's right. So often the Cowboys have been identified as players in various free agency sweepstakes, but looking back, rarely that's been true. "Splash" signings have been few and far between:

  • Deion's deal
  • Carr's deal
  • Rocket Ismail (7 years, $21.5 million) in 1999
  • La'Roi Glover (5 years, $22 million) in 2002
  • Marco Rivera (5 years, $25 million), Anthony Henry (5 years, $25 million) and Jason Ferguson (5 years, $21.5 million) in 2005
  • Terrell Owens (3 years, $25 million) in 2006 (viewed by many as something of a bargain following an acrimonious ending to his tenure with the Eagles)
  • Leonard Davis (7 years, $49.6 million) in 2007

More often the Cowboys' free-agent moves have been shorter-term contracts with lower signing bonuses, often after the league's big first wave of deals:

  • Dan Campbell (3 years, $4.3 million in 2003)
  • Kyle Kosier (5 years, $15 million) in 2006
  • Ken Hamlin (1 year, $2.5 million) in 2007
  • Zach Thomas (1 year, $3 million) in 2008
  • Igor Olshansky (4 years, $18 million), Keith Brooking (3 years, $6 million), and Gerald Sensabaugh (1 year, $1.75 million) in 2009
  • Kyle Orton (3 years, $10.5 million) in 2012 (admittedly, a good chunk of change for a backup quarterback)
  • Justin Durant (2 years, $2.4 million) in 2013
  • Jeremy Mincey (2 years, $4.5 million) in 2014
  • Darren McFadden (2 years, $5.85 million) last year.

Most of those deals worked out pretty well. Kosier, Hamlin and Sensabaugh earned second contracts. Mincey's currently set to be a free agent this year; McFadden has another year left on his deal after a productive 1,089-yard season.

The philosophy isn't complicated. The Cowboys try to plug as many holes as possible so they enter the draft with as few "must-haves" as possible. The big-money deals should be reserved for the draft picks that become leaders on the football team: the Smiths and the Crawfords and the Bryants and the Lees. April's when you build the team's foundation, not March.

As for this year, the Cowboys have needs. They have 18 players set for unrestricted free agency. And for the first time in years, they aren't pressed against the salary cap. They'll have spending flexibility.

How much will they spend? If history is any indication, they'll work toward retaining some of their own free agents and look for cap-friendly additions on the market. A "splash" signing isn't impossible, but it's not how the organization typically does business in free agency, despite its extravagant reputation.


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