MOBILE, Ala. – It's been a grand total of 10 days since the Cowboys' 2016 season ended, so you'll forgive them if they aren't done formulating a plan for 2017. As team executive vice president Stephen Jones pointed out Tuesday, the Cowboys haven't even finished with their coaching evaluations of last year.
Having said that, even at this early date, you can talk to either Stephen Jones or Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones and see a road map. The plan for how the Cowboys get to the 2017 season might not be finished, but it's certainly being formulated.
The new league year is still a solid six weeks away, but that plan might as well begin with free agency and the Cowboys' salary cap.
"We feel good about our cap situation. We can do the things we need to do and work through everything," Stephen Jones said Tuesday. "Like you said, it's not like we've got a ton of room when we're all said and done here, but it's very manageable."
This should sound familiar to anyone who has followed the Cowboys in the recent past. As it stands right now, they're projected above the coming salary cap. But as is always the case, they are capable of lowering that number fairly easily with contract restructures. It's a solid bet that, when they need to be, they'll have an easy enough time working their way under the cap.
The exact amount of cap space honestly doesn't seem that important, given the recent history. The Cowboys signed Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million contract back in 2012, but they have been incredibly frugal spenders in the time since.
A sampling of outside free agents they've acquired in recent years:
Cedric Thornton – four years, $18 million
Terrell McClain –three years, $3 million
Alfred Morris –two years, $3.5 million
Darren McFadden –two years, $3 million
Jeremy Mincey –two years, $4 million
Thornton is the biggest signing by a wide margin, and even his deal is small in the gaudy world of NFL contracts. That goes back to an often-stated strategy by Stephen Jones, which he repeated again Tuesday afternoon.
"With our cap situation the way it is, and really at the end of the day our philosophy – we're not big on overspending in free agency," he said. "If you ask me, where we've got the best opportunity is to go to work in the draft."
Why wouldn't that be the case? The Cowboys have found most of the building blocks of a 13-3 roster in the draft. Their proficiency in the first round was well-documented over the course of last season – All-Pro Dez Bryant in 2010, All-Pro Tyron Smith in 2011, All-Pro Travis Frederick in 2013, All-Pro Zack Martin in 2014 and All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
For all the criticism about their second round risks – Jaylon Smith, Randy Gregory, you can find plenty of other success stories littered throughout the later rounds. Fellow All-Pro Sean Lee was a second-round pick in 2010. Dak Prescott, the new face of the franchise, was obviously a mid-round pick. Two of the team's longest-tenured starters, Doug Free and Orlando Scandrick, were fourth and fifth round picks, respectively.
None of that even includes the production the Cowboys have found among their undrafted free agents – Tony Romo, Cole Beasley, Ron Leary, Barry Church, Jeff Heath, Dan Bailey, Chris Jones and others.
You get the point.
It's undeniable the Cowboys have defensive deficiencies as they head into this draft cycle. But, as they'll tell you, they didn't achieve that success with the short-sighted approach of drafting for need.
"There are going to be some players there, and we have several places that we can basically add to some good players we've got there now," Jerry Jones said. "I think that it's fair to say that we'll be looking defensively. But, as we know, that's not necessarily what shows up."
That's how this year differs from last, thanks to the on-field success. When the Cowboys picked No. 4 overall – and at the top of every subsequent round – last year, they had a much firmer grasp on who would be available to them. Picking No. 28 – and at the tail end of every subsequent round – is going to require much more prep work as they piece their board together.
"There's obviously going to be some guys you won't spend as much time on cause you know they're going to be top half of the draft guys," Stephen Jones said. "But after that -- and there's always the occasional guy that falls -- but you start become aware of that as well. It's probably more work in terms of doing that, but you were having to do that for that second pick anyway."
Of course, just because the Cowboys aren't typically big spenders doesn't mean there isn't work to do. They currently have 18 pending free agents, and they'd undoubtedly love to have some of them back.
There's the defensive back foursome of Carr, Church, Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox. There's McClain, who thrived in his first healthy season on the defensive line. There's also the duo of Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, whose potential departures could leave the wide receiver corps short-handed.
As the Cowboys' front office is well aware, that's all going to depend on the cost.
"All those are guys we'd like to sign," Stephen Jones said. "You've got to make it all work. And sometimes as we all know, you don't get to sign them all back. That doesn't mean you don't try."
There's also the looming uncertainty of Romo's future – a topic that Jerry Jones isn't ready to discuss as of yet. There will undoubtedly be twists in turns during the lead up to the new league year, let alone in the months that follow it.
But for now, even in the opening week of the offseason, you can see the beginnings of the Cowboys' blueprint – if you look for it.