Spagnola: Sometimes Getting What You Need Makes Most Cents In Free Agency

IRVING, Texas – There is nothing free about free agency the first couple of days.

It costs. A lot. A ridiculously lot. If someone was selling this NFL concept of open-market bidding on Shark Tank, they'd tell 'em to get outta here, pronto. Whaddaya think we are, fools?

As the saying on my cube wall reminds daily, The Mother of Idiots (or fools in this case) is always pregnant.

You kidding me? A guy coming off a 7.5-sack season, a nice season but by no means great, gets a five-year, $85.5 million deal the opening day of NFL free agency, with $52 million guaranteed? Crazy, man.

Or a team so desperate for a starting-quality quarterback gambles $72 million, of which $37 million is fully guaranteed, over just four years on the potential of a guy who never has been an established starting quarterback at this level? Seriously?

And we never thought the NFL would turn into MLB, where a .250-hitting second baseman can make like $8 million a year, guaranteed for the life of the contract, no matter what.

So my assumption is we're addressing reasonable people here today, meaning we can have a reasonably logical discussion pertaining to this year's start to free agency and the Dallas Cowboys, who with the exception of only one or two occasions when it comes to signing other people's castoffs have been no more than toe-dippers.

 A little here, a little there, never too deep, and rarely plunging in all at once. Do so too many times and there is a belly-flop just waiting to happen. Go ask 'em.

So let's try to make sense of the Cowboys' hesitancy to get into a bidding war with the Giants for defensive end Olivier Vernon or Houston for running back Lamar Miller or the Eagles for quarterback Chase Daniel.

Good gosh, the Cowboys aren't just one defensive end or one running back or one backup quarterback (well, maybe) away from reclaiming the NFC East. And the Cowboys aren't like the Giants, who entered free agency with $56.6 million of cap space available, and that ranked as only the fifth most among the 32 teams.

The Cowboys basically entered the market with like $14 million of venture capital. That would register as a lot for them in comparison to recent years when they had to continue pushing money into the future just to get under the salary cap, let alone go speculating. But if we speak logically, that's not a heckuva lot of cap space.

Look at it this way: The Cowboys will need around $6 million this year to fund their draft, a little more than usual because of owning the fourth pick. They usually budget around $1 million for the practice squad. They routinely budget about $2 million for injury settlements and having to replace injured reserve guys on the 53-man roster. Oh, and currently only the top-51 salaries count against the cap. So eventually two more must count, and even at the rookie minimum, there goes another cool million.

Right there, that's $10 million of the $14 million. That leaves around $4 million, and rightfully so, they are becoming more hesitant about borrowing from the future for now. You know, as too many folks do, allowing interest on your credit card debt to grow daily, plunging financially into a never-ending spiral.

Now on Thursday the Cowboys did push money over the length of defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford's contract, but not a lot, handing him a $5.5 million bonus to reduce this year's $6.75 million base salary to just $1.25 million, thus spreading that bonus  money over the five years remaining on his deal. So really, only adding like $1.1 million to each year. But in doing so adding $4.4 million to this year's cap.

They can still enact a similar mechanism tactic on Tyron Smith's, and his deal is so long they'll barely feel the impact. What you don't want to do is keep adding money to the shorter end of Tony Romo's deal.

Also, here is what's primarily in the back of the minds of these so far frugal Cowboys: They have a shopping list for 2016. Many times we talk about the Cowboys needs, but rarely do we speak of them in totality. So let's do so. Let's make a list of their dire needs for a robust 53-man roster, either meeting them through free agency or the draft, in no particular order of priority.

Defensive end, since Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford are free agents; Randy Gregory is suspended for the first four games of the season; and last year's team sack leader DeMarcus Lawrence is coming off microdiscectomy surgery to repair a herniated back disk. Probably need at least two of these guys.

Defensive tackle, since Nick Hayden is a free agent and who knows what they might get out of Terrell McClain, after he spent all but two weeks last season on injured reserve. Probably need at least two, and why they wasted no time in signing Thursday's visiting free agent Cedric Thornton, who had started the past 45 consecutive games for the Eagles. He's been a 3-4 defensive end, 6-4, 309, but showed up closer to like 299. He will be a 4-3 1-technique tackle who has some versatility to play the 3, too.

It's been reported that he signed a four-year $18 million deal, but that's the absolute most. In reality, it's a two-year, $9 million deal, with a $5 million signing bonus, a guaranteed $1 million base salary in 2016 and a $3 million guaranteed base in 2017 if on the roster in March. No need for a secret Swiss bank account to pay for the guy.

Again, toe-dipping by comparison to what took place on Day One of free agency.

And that's what the Cowboys did with linebacker Rolando McClain, too, signing him to a rather conservative one-year, $4 million deal, with a $1 million incentive if he plays 75 percent of the defensive snaps.

OK, let's continue with our list.

Running back, since Darren McFadden, Rod Smith and Ben Malena are the only backs under contract, with even the rehabbing unrestricted Lance Dunbar visiting the 49ers. Need at least two, and one with better than average ability.

Backup quarterback, for sure, since the only guys under contract are Tony Romo, who just had shoulder surgery to reduce the length of his left collarbone; Kellen Moore, who has now played in all of three NFL games in four years; and Jameill Showers, last year's rookie practice squader. Even if they draft one, probably need a moderately-priced veteran to challenge Moore for the backup job, and why they were kicking tires with visiting Matt Moore on Thursday.

Backup tight end, since Gavin Escobar likely starts the season on PUP rehabbing his torn Achilles and James Hanna is an unrestricted free agent who was visiting with San Diego on Friday, leaving just Jason Witten and Geoff Swaim healthy and able.

Cornerback, since Morris Claiborne is a free agent, Orlando Scandrick is coming back off his torn ACL, leaving the Cowboys with only Brandon Carr in the final year of his deal, the just re-signed Josh Thomas, young Terrance Mitchell and the highly-inexperienced Deji Olatoya, that is if Byron Jones is considered a safety, and he should be. All reason why free-agent corner Nolan Carroll was visiting on Thursday. Can't have enough corners.

Safety, since, look, even if we count Jones here, Barry Church is returning from a broken arm in the final year of his contract, J.J. Wilcox still hasn't arrived entering the final year of his contract, Danny McCray, even if re-signed as a free agent, is mostly a special teams player, and Jeff Heath is a minimum-tendered restricted free agent.[embeddedad0]

My gosh, anything else?

Oh yeah, forgot one: Who is the backup center? Realize Mackenzy Bernadeau is a free agent, and he's the one who served the dual role of backup center/guard on the game-day roster. Now if no one signs restricted free agent Ron Leary to an offer sheet the Cowboys choose not to match, at least they have a backup guard, but he's never played center.

See there, that's a mighty exhaustive list, and it all costs.

My guess is, like me and you, with that many needs we can't go buy that 70-inch TV if we don't have anything left for a pot to sit on at home, you know what I mean. This is no different. So careful what some of you want to moan about. And really, moaning for moaning sake out of sheer emotion really isn't very becoming.

In fact, you should be applauding the Cowboys for being judicious instead of carelessly extravagant with their minimal cap space. Applaud them for having just $901,000 in dead money so far this year, maybe an all-time low for this century.

Concentrate on the whole instead of insisting on overpaying players their own teams didn't think were worth the money to keep. Just remember, there is nothing free in free agency, mostly just a hurried expedition for what usually nets fool's gold.

Come on, be reasonable, there's nothing wrong with just carefully dipping in one toe at a time.

See, The Rolling Stones got it right a long, long time ago, way, way before free agency was born:

No, you can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime well you just might find
You get what you need

Carry on.

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