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Spagnola: Chasing Your Tail In Free Agency Is A Dangerous Thing To Do

*FRISCO, Texas – *Now that the parade is over – I think – and the hysteria is quieting down since the Philadelphia Eagles finally won a Super Bowl, let’s look at things rather realistically.

         Because I’m sure everyone in the cities of the other 31 NFL teams are all asking the same question:

         What do we have to do to catch up with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles?

         Now, that question probably is being asked with more energy and urgency in the cities of the NFC East, since the Lombardi Trophy being feted around the City of Brotherly Shove on Thursday hits closer to home to the Cowboys, Redskins and Giants.

         And asking this question is standard operating procedure in the NFL manual, right? Always happens. That’s what you do this time of year.

         But look, let’s start with a little history lesson.

         Since the Eagles won the NFC East in the four consecutive years between 2001 and 2004, no NFC East team has repeated as division champs in the past 13 seasons. During this time period, the Eagles and Cowboys have each won the East four times, the Giants three and the Redskins twice.

         Certainly everyone in Philly thinks that’s about to change, just like all those Cowboys fans figured after the 13-3 season of 2016, that the little stat was definitely going to change in 2017. Ha, it did not. Not even close.

         Also, let’s look at Super Bowl winners. Since the Cowboys won back-to-back titles in 1992-93, only Denver (1997-98) and New England (2003-04) have repeated as Super Bowl champions over the past 24 seasons. That’s it. Many a budding dynasty has been no more than castles in the sand. In fact, since the Cowboys double before the start of free agency as we know it today in 1994, and besides New England and Denver doing so since, only Green Bay (1996-97) and New England (2016-17) have even returned to the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons.

         And if you look at Super Bowl history since the Cowboys last won in 1995, a dozen different teams have earned titles over the past 22 seasons, with multiple titles won by New England (5), Denver (3) and two each by the Giants, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Green Bay.

         Definitely not saying the Eagles can’t return in 2018, but just sayin’, if we look at 24 years of history, if we look at the parity ruling the NFL more so today than ever before, the odds are against the Iggles flying highest once again. Good they celebrated on Thursday like it was 1999.

         Now the Cowboys, that’s who you’re most worried about. And the next item everyone this time of year gets all excited about is free agency. So just know teams can begin designating franchise or transition players on Feb. 20. That’s only 11 days away. Free agency and the trading period opens March 14, a good month away.

         That also is the date the salary cap comes into play. And this year the cap is expected to hit around $178 million to $180 million, so a nice bump from this past season’s $167 million. But don’t think the Cowboys will have a huge surplus of funds to go out speculating for big-name guys. They won’t.

         The Cowboys will be beset with a good chunk of dead money, at this point right at $13.6 million, the majority of that the remaining portions of unaccounted bonus or restructure prorations for Tony Romo ($8.9 million), Cedric Thornton ($2.5 million) and Nolan Carroll ($2 million).

         Available will be around $19 million before considering any restructures. And to me, and guarantee you to them, their free-agency priority will be taking care of their own. So let’s take the emotion out of this and look at it logically.

         The Cowboys’ first priority will be defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. He’s an unrestricted free agent. One way or another he’s going to get paid for those 14.5 sacks, 5.5 more than his previous three-year career total. Signing Lawrence to a long-term deal would be preferable. But it might not be practical in a free market.

         Think about this: His agent, David Canter, is the same guy who negotiated that five-year, $85 million deal for Olivier Vernon with the Giants after Miami rescinded its transition tag on the then 25-year-old defensive end coming off a 7.5-sack season in 2015. The Giants also fully guaranteed at signing $40 million, nearly half.

         You can bet that number is forefront in Canter’s mind.

         Now then, if the Cowboys can’t come to a reasonable number on a long-term deal, then they will slap the franchise tag on Lawrence before the 3 p.m., March 6 deadline to retain his rights, thus buying another four months to continue working on that much more cap-desirable longer contract. The projected franchise tag for a defensive end currently is hovering around $17.4 million … guaranteed.

         Big cap chunk, right?

         Next order of business is Zack Martin. The Cowboys already reserved his fifth-year rights by giving him the $9.3 million qualifying offer. But knocking out a long-term deal with him might cut that 2018 cap charge by half and boost the Cowboys’ cap space initially. You should know the Browns made Kevin Zeitler the highest paid guard with a five-year, $60 million deal this past year, $31.5 million guaranteed. That’s a big number to match when considering the Cowboys also have big numbers on their two other Pro Bowl offensive linemen, Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, and already have extended La’el Collins.

         Then we come to unrestricted free agent Anthony Hitchens. Cowboys COO Stephen Jones is on record as saying the Cowboys need to get him signed. Remember, though, you only get one franchise tag. So if Lawrence doesn’t agree to a long-term deal by March 6, he’ll get tagged. If he does, the Cowboys could consider the franchise tag for Hitchens, although that cost at linebacker is just more than $15 million.

         With 92 tackles – nine for losses – in just 12 games, “Hitch” finished third on the team, behind only Sean Lee (118) and Jaylon Smith (99). Somebody is going to pay Hitch. He can play middle linebacker or weak-side linebacker. Most of all, he can just play.

To me, the Cowboys need him. First, they have no one remotely capable of playing behind Lee. Also, there is no way the Cowboys can be certain Smith is either physically ready to play 60 snaps a game for 16 games or guarantee he plays at a high enough level to make re-signing Hitch a moot point.

         On this one, the Cowboys likely will be at the mercy of the market, which they don’t want to set. But then you risk the chance of losing him. See Barry Church.

         To a lesser extent, the Cowboys must decide also what to do with defensive lineman David Irving, a restricted free agent. My guess is his injury and off-field history will discourage the Cowboys from trying to even sign him to a long-term deal. So that means they likely will give him one of two restricted free agency qualifying offers: At the first-round level in return if they refuse to match another team’s offer sheet costing $4.152 million; or at the second-round return level for $2.96 million. Both are guaranteed, just like the franchise tag.

         Also, if the Cowboys are to go to school on the Eagles’ success, might better consider having a more seasoned backup quarterback to third-year Dak Prescott than the rookie free agent they rolled the dice on for the majority of the 2017 season who will head into 2018 with all of 15 snaps of NFL experience. Might need to throw a few million at that, too, for sure.

         So, possessing reasonable mathematical skills would indicate that $18 million or so of cap space will dissolve pretty quickly if the Cowboys simply do what seemingly is required of them doing – before they even consider speculating on someone else’s free-agent castaways. Just can’t afford putting filet mignon on every plate.

          Plus, as it stands right now, if you consider the Cowboys’ current top-10 cap charges, that total is right at $100 million, leaving like $78 million for your other 43 players. Then subtract the dead money, and that leaves you now $64 million. See what I mean?

         Of course, out of necessity, the Cowboys can also restructure contracts, giving guys some upfront money that can be further prorated over the life of contracts. But you have to be careful continuing to do that with guys who keep dealing with injuries since you never know. See Romo. Because at some point, no matter what is pushed ahead, you still have to pay the piper.

         All meaning, when you’re cap-strapped, getting better must first occur through the draft, then by keeping your own who are worth keeping and finally from internal improvement, such as Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, Taco Charlton, Charles Tapper, Maliek Collins, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Brown, Ryan Switzer, Kavon Frazier, Byron Jones, Rod Smith, Geoff Swaim, and don’t overlook third-year improvements being made by Dak and Ezekiel Elliott.

         As you can see, the Cowboys have their work cut out for them, just as every other team does and, you know, if you look at history, as do the Eagles.

         And you had better hope, just because their division rivals were crowing downtown Philadelphia all day Thursday, that the Cowboys don’t fall for that quick-fix free-agency mirage. It’s no long-term elixir. 

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