In late October 2012, the Cowboys made a shrewd business decision that flew under the radar when they signed safety Barry Church to a contract extension. The move was made after Church had torn his Achilles' tendon. So how in the world could locking Church up to a long-term deal be a smart move? Well, Church's perceived worth was at its lowest point. The Cowboys knew they wanted to keep him in Dallas, so giving him a deal after he suffered a season-ending injury allowed the team to secure the maximum amount of value.
The best teams around the league continually employ such a strategy, signing players before they break out as opposed to waiting until they produce (thus forcing you to pay a premium). Such contract decisions are perhaps the top area in which advanced stats can aid teams; in predicting future stars before they become stars, organizations can more effectively manage their salary cap.
You can't always "buy low" on players, however. Sometimes, you need to pay a player who has produced at a high level. However, the signing should never be because of that past production. Contracts aren't rewards. They're predictions. In signing a player long term, teams are effectively placing a bet on the future success of a player. The bigger the deal, the better he must play. It's not enough to sign talented players; you need to sign them at the right prices.
That's why age is such an important factor in contracts. A running back might very well produce quality numbers in his late-20s, but if you shell out big bucks to him in hopes that he'll repeat his performance into his 30s, you're going to get burned. With that said, let's take a look at four players the Cowboys should at least consider signing long term.
1. Bruce Carter – Free Agent in 2015
Carter broke out somewhat last season, but he stilled played only 11 games. In his two-year career, Carter has totaled just 78 tackles, zero sacks, zero forced fumbles, zero fumble recoveries and zero interceptions. But we all know the 25-year-old is a really talented linebacker who has the potential to erupt as the Will in Monte Kiffin's defense. The signs of success are there. The money to sign Carter might not be available with some other deals on the horizon, but he's a player to monitor.
2. Sean Lee – Free Agent in 2014
Lee might be the Cowboys' top free agent priority because his contract ends after this season. The Cowboys have a really interesting decision on Lee because, since he came into the NFL at a fairly old age, he'll already be 27 when the 2013 season begins. If the 'Boys were to hand Lee a five-year deal starting in 2014, it would take him through his age 32 season. That's workable for a linebacker, but not ideal.
Lee is the sort of player everyone wants to have on their team. The question is whether or not he's worth signing if it means forgoing deals with other players. Sure, the team might take Lee over Carter in a vacuum, but when you consider that Lee will probably command a lot more money (at this point, anyway), the decision isn't so easy. Now throw in the fact that inside linebacker isn't a premium position, and the choice becomes even more difficult.
3. Dez Bryant – Free Agent in 2015 [embedded_ad]
With nearly 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, Bryant isn't going to come cheaply anymore. He's a 24-year old stud who is very much in the conversation as one of the NFL's top two or three receivers. Bryant totally changes the dynamic of the Cowboys' offense and re-signing him should be the team's top long-term priority. He's the sort of player who's worth "overpaying" because he's so rare. Unlike a talented running back or linebacker, you can't easily replace a Dez Bryant-caliber receiver.
4. Tyron Smith – Free Agent in 2015
I labeled Smith as one of my breakout candidates because he's a freak athlete who will enter his third NFL season at just age 22. That's so valuable because the Cowboys can sign Smith long term and know that he'll be in his prime throughout the life of the contract. Even if the ' were to hand Smith a seven-year extension after the 2013 season, he'd still be just 30 years old when that deal ends – far within the range of "prime" years for offensive linemen.
Anthony Spencer – Free Agent in 2014; Jason Hatcher – Free Agent in 2014
I'm not debating that Spencer and Hatcher are solid players; they were actually the two guys I was highest on entering the 2012 season. But they'll be 29 and 31 years old, respectively, when the 2013 campaign begins. Was the Church extension a sign of things to come, or will the Cowboys dish out big money to veterans whose future play is very unlikely to resemble their past success? The manner in which the organization handles Spencer's contract (and Hatcher's, to a lesser degree) will tell us a lot about the future of the Dallas Cowboys.