Happy Legal Tampering Day
IRVING – Today marks the opening of what in the NFL is unofficially called “Legal Tampering Day.’’ Teams cannot sign unrestricted free agents until Wednesday – the March 9 opening of the NFL business year – but they can begin negotiations. So what does that really mean? Deals will be done. But you know, not done. But, actually, like, done.
The Cowboys presently have $12 million of room under the $155 million salary cap and have numerous ways of expanding that room to $24 mil and beyond. But note COO Stephen Jones’ recent reflection on the process. “I’m not a big fan of free agency; I’ll be the first to admit it,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, good players get paid like they’re great players, average players get paid like they’re good players and it’s a domino effect. It’s not a great way to put your team together.”
But it is a tool to be used – and one that can be used wisely. Last year, Dallas signed running back Darren McFadden and linebacker Andrew Gachkar to cheap deals early in the process. A week later, on a “second tier,’’ Dallas signed pass-rusher Greg Hardy – a player who if not surrounded by controversy would’ve commanded $13 million a year. The Cowboys ended up paying him $8.8 million.
The philosophies in place last season had Stephen’s fingerprints all over them, and this spring will look much the same. Dallas will not engage in a bidding war for, say, Miami pass-rusher Olivier Vernon. It will instead try to find second-tier value with a defensive lineman like Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn.
As much as the Cowboys might like running backs like Miami’s Lamar Miller, if he’s interested in going to the highest bidder, he won’t land in Dallas. The Cowboys will prioritize their own free agents. That list includes Rolando McClain, Morris Claiborne, James Hanna and Jack Crawford. That group is less sexy than some fans might wish…but it fits with a strategy that emphasizes “beating the cap’’ by drafting well.
“You’d like to build your team through the draft and keep your players that hopefully you drafted well and keep those type of players so we’re not out there in free agency,’’ Stephen said. “Hopefully you’re not really needing to have something that you’re paying a good player like he’s a great player. We’ve done it before, it doesn’t mean we won’t do it ever again, but you try not to.’’
That’s the mindset as the Cowboys today go shopping – or, maybe on these first few days, “window shopping’’ – for function and fit in free agency.