INDIANAPOLIS – The question gets asked every March.
Will the Cowboys get splashy in free agency?
Depends on your definition of 'splash.'
The Cowboys have every intention of spending money this spring. The primary objectives, however, are their own.
"It's very difficult (be active in free agency) when you have D-Lawrence, you have Zack Martin," executive vice president Stephen Jones said from the NFL Scouting Combine. "Obviously, you'd like to have unlimited funds to improve our football team, but it's very difficult when you want to sign guys like DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin and Anthony Hitchens and you know guys like Dak Prescott and Zeke — and those guys are coming. We certainly want to have those guys as well, so it makes it very difficult."
The Cowboys expect Lawrence back, either with a long-term deal or the one-year franchise tag that could fall between $18-19 million. Martin isn't a free agent until 2019, but both sides have said they want to get an extension done. Hitchens, a four-year starter, is also a priority, though it remains to be seen what he might command on the open market.
If Dallas can retain all three – two Pro Bowlers and a starting linebacker who can play all three spots and get around 100 tackles – that will definitely qualify as a splash in the front office's mind.
Their approach for years is clear: better to invest in players they know and trust than free agents they don't know as well and are likely to get overpaid.
"We'd like to hope and think that we've drafted well and we're spending our money in the right places," Jones said. "I know there's a school of thought out there, though, at the same time that you shouldn't always build your team through the draft. But I do think we're fortunate in the fact that we have drafted well. And certainly when you draft well, you want to pay the guys that you drafted well and keep them with a star on their helmet."
The Cowboys are still likely to be opportunistic when free agency begins in a couple of weeks, and they can create extra salary cap space by restructuring current deals if needed.
For the most part, the team found success finding contributors on cap-friendly deals over the last few years: Rolando McClain, Nick Hayden, Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, Jack Crawford, among others.
They also know they need more contributions any lower-cost deals they might strike in the future. Last year, four free-agent signings (Robert Blanton, Nolan Carroll, Damontre' Moore and Stephen Paea) were off the roster by mid-season. The team also cut defensive Cedric Thornton at the end of preseason, a year after giving him a four-year deal worth roughly $18 million.
"Obviously it didn't work out for us, and we missed. You certainly want to be better," Jones said. "That's one thing I admire about Will (McClay) and our staff, is certainly since it didn't work – why not? And how do we fix it?"
That's part of the roster-building plan. The other part is identifying draft prospects this week in Indy.