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Spagnola: Taking Big Hacks In Free Agency Can Produce Foul Balls

IRVING, Texas– So the haranguing continues.

The Cowboys are whiffing in free agency. The Cowboys are swinging and missing in free agency. What's the problem?

Seen 'em all in headlines, on the internet, in Tweets, incessantly heard on talk radio, and assuming all with intent to inflame the uninitiated instead of disseminating cold, hard, rational facts.

Look, as in baseball, you can swing and make contact, right? But when it comes to NFL free agency, I guarantee you that contact will produce more costly foul balls than productive drives into the gaps. You rarely, if ever find bang for your buck in free agency. But then from the player's standpoint, that's the benefit of an open market -- competition to secure services drives up the price.[embeddedad0]

You know, the ol' Econ 101 axiom of supply and demand.

To me, here are the top five unrestricted free agents the Cowboys have ever signed since the start of free agency in 1994 (not counting Plan B), taking into consideration production vs. cost:

DT Le'Roi Glover.

C Ray Donaldson.

CB Ryan McNeil.

RB Darren McFadden.

LS Jeff Robinson.

Here are the five worst, and this pool certainly has far more candidates to choose from:

K Mike Vanderjagt.

G Nate Livings.

QB Paul Justin.

S Will Allen.

DT Henry Melton

And that's with considerable consideration for Bryant Westbrook, Jasper Brinkley and Brodney Pool.

Some might say, heck, where is Deion Sanders? Well, from a team standpoint, Deion was never worth what was then an exorbitant salary of five years, $35 million, with a $12.999 million signing bonus (Jerry was superstitious of the number 13). Sure the Cowboys went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl his first year in 1995 (he started just nine regular-season games).

But for that much money, then why did the Cowboys only go 10-6, 6-10, 10-6 and 8-8 his other four years, with just one playoff victory in four games? His cap charges hamstrung the Cowboys from being able to supplement a team of aging stars, and one football man does not make a team.

And why you say, no Brandon Carr, his five-year $50 million deal with $26 million guaranteed now hamstringing this team? OK, but that was the going rate for corners back in 2012, and the Cowboys were desperate. And at least he has played, starting every game for four seasons, but is a prime example of what happens when you desperately add unrestricted free agents. They always cost more than they are worth.

So let's pick up where we left off here last Friday, when listing all the Cowboys needs they had to fill, and what they've done so far with a relatively modest amount of cap space to re-stock a team – a 53-man roster which had 18 unrestricted free agents and two more restricted guys, in other words 46 percent of their roster potentially eligible to leave. They had a lot to do. They've done a lot with little.

DT Cedric Thornton: The Cowboys needed to get younger and better at the one-technique defensive tackle position. The former Eagles 3-4 DE gives them a chance, good run stuffer in the middle, one willing to take on double-teams. Don't look at his deal as four-years, $17 million. Considering the guaranteed money, it's one-year, $6 million or two-years, $9 million if on the roster the beginning of the 2017 league year. His cap hit for 2016 is only $2.25 million.

LB Rolando McClain: The Cowboys sorely needed a middle linebacker so they could keep Pro Bowler Sean Lee on the weak side. And face it, playing in just 11 games after his four-game suspension, McClain finished third on the team with 97 tackles. Best, he re-signed only a one-year deal, with a $3.375 million cap hit, the ability to earn a $1.375 roster bonus and $1 million more for playing 75 percent of the plays. Can't beat that, keeping that carrot hanging closely overhead.

TE James Hanna: If the Cowboys didn't re-sign Hanna, knowing Gavin Escobar is coming off that torn Achilles suffered the end of the season, who was going to be the sure backup tight end? Totally inexperienced Geoff Swaim? Fine, then they would need a third. While Hanna signed a three-year, $8.25 million deal, with a $2.5 million signing bonus (so $833,333 per year against the cap), his first-year cap charge is just $1.75 million. A relative bargain for the dirty work he does.

CB Morris Claiborne: OK, I know he was only healthy enough for 11 games and has had injury problems most of his career, but he was the team's best cornerback in 2015 for those 11 games. The guy can cover in man. His best season. And while Orlando Scandrick returns in 2016, he also is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. The Cowboys needed another veteran corner, and all they are paying is one year, $3 million, with only $500,000 guaranteed, a $250,000 workout bonus and he can earn $62,500 per game played, of which 11 games will be considered likely-to-be-earn, pushing his cap for the potential starting corner to all of $2.687 million.

RB Lance Dunbar: An absolute necessity. Remember how good he was before tearing his ACL and patellar tendon returning the second-half kickoff in New Orleans? Plus, they needed to restock the running back position, and still do, since with him the Cowboys have McFadden, Dunbar, Rod Smith and Ben Malena under contract, with veteran Redskins running back Alfred Morris coming in for a visit on Monday. Bring me a vet and/or a draft choice for sure. And again, with Dunbar returning from significant knee surgery – I'm told he's way ahead of schedule in his rehab – he signs a one-year deal that maxes out at $1.75 million but hits the cap for only $987,500, with a chance to earn another $22,000 every time he is active on game day. After bumping into him Thursday upon his return from visits to San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago – guess those teams whiffed on him – he was a happy camper, signing a couple of hours later.

 LB Kyle Wilber: The new Swiss Army knife, outside linebacker, middle linebacker, rush end and tied for special teams tackles lead in 2015. All that for a $1.5 million cap hit.

OT Charles Brown: The Cowboys needed a backup tackle with at least one down of experience, which would be more than Chaz Green possesses. But signing Brown to a one-year, $760,000 deal that counts just $600,000 against the cap with no signing bonus, his presence doesn't preclude Green from winning the backup job in camp.

CB Josh Thomas: A veteran backup at most, with a chance to make the team since he signed a one-year minimum deal. But should Terrance Mitchell and/or Deji Olatoye beat him out, no sweat off the cap.

I get it, there's nothing that knocks your socks off, but they arenecessity signings. And there's still work to do, since defensive end, with Randy Gregory facing that four-game suspension, needs help. Re-signing Jack Crawford would be nice, and they'd like to. Stay tuned here where they continue to bottom fish, visiting with Raiders relative unknown restricted free-agent defensive end Benson Mayowa.

Backup quarterback needs help, but the Cowboys didn't want to guarantee Matt Moore the $2 million Miami did to re-sign, that way if Kellen Moore wins the backup job in camp or a drafted rookie surprisingly wins the job they wouldn't be wasting cap space on a Matt Moore. Eyes still wide open here, just not their wallets, and with the number of quarterbacks expected to be drafted, there will be some veterans eventually swimming back out in the free-agent pool come late August.

Backup center is another need now that Mackenzy Bernadeau signed with Jacksonville, but there are a few available in the middle rounds of the draft.

And of course running back, even with Dunbar re-signed, and why a veteran like Morris will visit next week.

So as you see, more work still to go.

And just to do all this, without making a splash, and to create enough space to fund their draft-class' cap charges for 2016, the Cowboys created nearly $12 million of more space by restructuring the 2016 base salaries of DT Tyrone Crawford and Tyron Smith. Remember, too, only the top 51 salaries now count against the cap, so 52 and 53 will add up to at least another $1 million. Practice squad? Another $1 million. Injury settlements and replacing guys going on injured reserve (those salaries still count), maybe another couple of million.

Some say the Cowboys are striking out in free agency. Look, just because some free agents name is linked to the Cowboys doesn't mean they've been swinging for the fences with these guys, or for that matter even significantly interested in signing them. Agents have ways of inventing false interest out there to create a market.

Plus, if you think about it, no team has added a better quarterback in free agency than the Cowboys regaining the services of a healthy Tony Romo and no team has added a better wide receiver than the Cowboys regaining the services of a healthy Dez Bryant. Right?

No, when it comes right down to it, a reasonable man would say the Cowboys are being incredibly judicious, as pointed out here last week. And even if they take hacks and miss on some of the guys they have re-signed, the cost won't be a lasting arm and a leg against the cap.

Only swings and misses on $50 million or $80 million deals cause you to really strike out.

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