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NFL Free Agency: Does it Really Pay Off to Pay Big?

Jess Haynie



Earl Thomas, Seahawks

Every year around the middle of March, the NFL world goes crazy with the start of free agency. Teams and their fans get caught up in the idea of making those one or two big signings that could change the fortunes of their franchise. But does history show that these high-priced free agent deals really lead to more wins?

This seems especially relevant in the 2019 offseason as it relates to the Dallas Cowboys. Fans are frustrated with the team's lack of spending, seeing this as an opportunity to go "all in" and push toward Super Bowl contention.

But this isn't a new concept; many teams have thought the same through the years and tried to buy a championship. Jerry Jones was as guilty of this as most owners during part of his reign.

So why not now?

To research this, I went back and looked at the last five years of free agent movement. I took the top five deals in terms of average money per year and looked at how those players' new teams fared the year before signing them and the year after.

What's more, I thought it would be good to look at the impact that losing a top free agent had on his former team. How much did it hurt them in the Win-Loss column, if at all?

One note; I decided to take quarterbacks out of this conversation. A change in QB has a far greater impact on a team's performance than any other position, so much that it corrupts the data for the rest.

So, going back to 2014, here were the five most-lucrative contracts signed by players who changed teams each season.

Darrelle Revis, Patriots

CB Darrelle Revis


  • CB Darrelle Revis (TB to NE) -- 1 year, $12 million
  • DE DeMarcus Ware (DAL to DEN) -- 3 years, $30 million
  • CB Aqib Talib (NE to DEN) -- 6 years, $57 million
  • S Jairus Byrd (BUF to NO) -- 6 years, $54 million
  • OT Branden Albert (KC to MIA) -- 5 years, $47 million

The Patriots and Broncos were already good before these acquisitions. They went from 12-4 and 13-3 in 2013, respectively, to still being 12-4 the following season. New England would eventually win the Super Bowl that year, as they tend to do.

Things weren't so good for the Saints or Dolphins. It was a down year for New Orleans, dropping from 11-5 to 7-9, while Miami had the same 8-8 record in 2014 that they'd had the year before.

So despite their big free agent moves, all of these teams actually had the same or worse records than in the previous season.

Interestingly, the teams that lost these top free agents didn't fare too badly. Of course, New England replaced with Talib with Revis. As we'll see elsewhere, the Patriots are an unfair measure because they're the best at dealing with personnel changes.

But even outside of New England, the Cowboys went from 8-8 to 12-4 and the Bills improved to 9-7 from a 6-10 finish the year before. The Chiefs and Bucs each lost two more games than the year before, but overall there was a +4 swing in W/L records for these clubs.

This is just one season, but you start to get the idea. Big free agent additions didn't help the new teams much, and losing those players didn't seem to hurt their old teams either.

Ndamukong Suh, Dolphins

DT Ndamukong Suh


  • DT Ndamukong Suh (DET to MIA) -- 6 years, $114 million
  • CB Darrelle Revis (NE to NYJ) -- 5 years, $70 million
  • DE Greg Hardy (CAR to DAL) -- 1 year, $11 million
  • WR Jeremy Maclin (PHI to KC) -- 5 years, $55 million
  • TE Julius Thomas (DEN to JAC) -- 5 years, $46 million

For one of the biggest deals in NFL history, Suh's move from the Lions to the Dolphins hurt his old team but did nothing for the new one. Detroit dropped from 11-5 to 7-9, but the Dolphins actually won two fewer games in 2015 than the year before.

This illustrates another key point here. Outside of the QB position, it's hard for any one player to change the landscape of a franchise. A middling team like Miami is probably going to keep right on middling, even with a record-breaking deal for a top defensive player.

Elsewhere, Revis went to the Jets and helped spark a major improvement. New York went from 4-12 to 10-6 in 2015 and Darrelle went back to the Pro Bowl. For one year, at least, the big move paid off.

Greg Hardy's one year in Dallas was hardly worth the trouble, even though he was a solid player on the field. The Cowboys dropped to 4-12 because of a Tony Romo injury, but Hardy was reportedly a locker room problem for some of their younger players. Still, Romo's absence skews everything here.

More interesting is that Hardy's old team, the Panthers, made a huge leap from seven wins in 2014 to an incredible 15-1 season and Super Bowl appearance. Greg had only played 1 game in 2014 because his domestic violence issues, but it still goes to show how teams can quickly recover from even huge personnel changes.

The last two deals were both ripples in the pond. Philly went from 10-6 to 7-9 without Jeremy Maclin and the Chiefs improved from nine wins to 11 with him. Julius Thomas' old team, the Broncos, stayed steady at 12-4 while his new team, Jacksonville, went from 3-13 to just 5-11.

The big takeaway here is Suh, one of the most expensive free agents ever, having zero positive impact on his new team. Miami still had Joe Philbin at coach and Ryan Tannehill at QB, and they were basically the same team as the year before.

Dak Prescott, Olivier Vernon, Giants

LB Olivier Vernon


  • LB Olivier Vernon (MIA to NYG) -- 5 years, $85 million
  • CB Josh Norman (CAR to WAS) -- 5 years, $75 million
  • DT Malik Jackson (DEN to JAC) -- 6 years, $85 million
  • CB Janoris Jenkins (LAR to NYG) -- 5 years, $62 million
  • G Kelechi Osemele (BAL to OAK) -- 5 years, $59 million

Vernon's move helped improve the Giants from 6-10 to 11-5. However, with only 8.5 sacks, you could still argue that New York didn't get what they'd paid for. That is further evidenced by the fact that they just traded him away to Cleveland this offseason.

What's more, the Dolphins weren't hurt by his departure. Miami went from 6-10 to 10-5 that year without Vernon.

How about Josh Norman's move? Washington saw virtually no movement in their record; 9-7 in 2015 and 8-7-1 the next season. However, the Panthers fell from grace without Norman as they dropped from their huge 15-1 season to just 6-10.

Malik Jackson didn't help the Jaguars, either. They were 5-12 the year before and 3-13 after adding him. Even with a change at head coach in 2016, they still had Blake Bortles as the QB. As we've illustrated here several times already, it's hard to make up for that with any other moves.

Janoris Jenkins was also part of that improved Giants team we discussed. His previous team, the Rams also floundered without him. But that had a lot more to do with a QB controversy between Case Keenum and Jared Goff and the increasing ineptitude of Jeff Fisher, who was fired as coach before the end of the year.

Kemechi Osemele was part of the strong Raiders team in 2016 that went 12-4, up five wins from the previous season. But his previous team in Baltimore also improved, going from 5-11 to an 8-8 record.

NFL Free Agency: Does it Really Pay Off to Pay Big?

DE Calais Campbell


  • DE Calais Campbell (ARI to JAC) -- 4 years, $60 million
  • CB A.J. Bouye (HOU to JAC) -- 5 years, $68 million
  • OT Russell Okung (DEN to LAC) -- 4 years, $53 million
  • CB Stephon Gilmore (BUF to NE) -- 5 years, $65 million
  • G Kevin Zeitler (CIN to CLE) -- 5 years, $60 million

The Jaguars definitely went big here, giving out the two largest contracts to acquire new talent. And in this case you can't dispute the results; Jacksonville went from 3-13 to 10-6 and looked like a whole new team.

Everything went right for the Jags that season. Drafting Leonard Fournette boosted the offense and helped stabilize Bortles' performance. The defense was one of the best in the league, with the Campbell (14.5 sacks) and Bouye (6 INTs) additions certainly playing big parts.

As for their old teams, Arizona went fairly unchanged after Campbell's departure. They were 7-8-1 the year before and 8-8 without him. The Texans dropped from 9-7 to 4-12 after losing Bouye, but that had way more to do with QB DeShaun Watson's injury.

The Chargers saw an uptick after adding Okung, winning four more games in 2017. His previous team, Denver, also lost four more games the year after he left.

The Gilmore and Zeitler moves were inconsequential. The Patriots stayed the Patriots, winning 14 games the year before and 13 after adding Gilmore. And the Browns stayed the Browns, going from one win in 2016 to none in 2017.

NFL Free Agency: Does it Really Pay Off to Pay Big? 1

WR Sammy Watkins


  • WR Sammy Watkins (LAR to KC) -- 3 years, $48 million
  • OT Nate Solder (NE to NYG) -- 4 years, $62 million
  • CB Trumaine Johnson (LAR to NYJ) -- 5 years, $73 million
  • WR Allen Robinson (JAC to CHI) -- 3 years, $42 million
  • DT Ndamukong Suh (MIA to LAR) -- 1 year, $14 million

Last season saw Sammy Watkins get a big deal, $16 million per year, to join the Chiefs. And even though Kansas City had a great season, Watkins missed time and only produced 519 yards and three touchdowns. He was barely a factor.

What's more, the Rams certainly didn't miss him. LA went from 11-5 to 13-3 as Sean McVay proved how a great system can override talent. On paper, Robert Woods should never be a more productive player than Sammy Watkins.

Nate Solder went to join the Giants on their misguided Eli Manning retirement tour and they kept right on losing at 5-11. Same for Trumaine Johnson, who went to the Jets only to help them go 4-12. Bad teams stayed bad.

Allen Robinson didn't put up huge numbers but was a solid participant in the resurrection of the Chicago Bears. They jumped from 5-11 to 12-4, with a change in head coach and offensive coordinator having a lot do with it. The trade for Khalil Mack didn't hurt, either.

Just halfway into his historic deal with Miami, Ndamukong Suh got cut and jumped on the Rams bandwagon. He was an effective wingman for Aaron Donald and helped get them to the Super Bowl last year.

~ ~ ~

So what are the major takeaways from all of this?

The biggest, to me, is the reality that big money spent on anyone who doesn't play quarterback doesn't seem to be worth it. We saw numerous instances where bad teams stayed bad and good teams stayed good, and the swing in Win-Loss records compared to money spent just doesn't add up.

Over five years, these teams who spent big in free agency won a net total of 24.5 more games than they had the year before. Adjusting for duplicates, that averages out to just around one win per team per season.

Tens of millions of dollars spent, and salary cap space used, all for one extra win. How do you like that math?

Again, some of this evidence is skewed by other factors. Greg Hardy might've been a big addition in Dallas if they hadn't lost Tony Romo the same year. Perhaps Sammy Watkins would've had a much bigger year with the Chiefs if he hadn't been hurt, but even his per-game stats weren't great.

But the net results here are not kind for the notion that free agency is where teams are built and improved. Perhaps even more damning is how the team who lost these marquee players went fairly unchanged, or even improved at times, without them.

DeMarcus Lawrence

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

Consider the dilemma that the Dallas Cowboys face with DeMarcus Lawrence. He wants to be paid like a Khalil Mack or Von Miller, and he has a good case for it with the last two seasons of work. But will allowing Tank to consume that much of the salary cap really help Dallas win?

Many are scared by the idea of losing Lawrence because we've seen, very recently, what this defense looks like without a pass rush. But what else could the Cowboys do with $20 million this year?

Getting 10-15 sacks from a couple of guys is as good as getting them from one. Dallas could sign two solid players at DE and DT for what they'll pay to keep DeMarcus, plus maybe have some leftover for other uses.

That speaks to what we've seen through out study here. Team who didn't pay to keep expensive free agents likely had the resources to make other moves. That's what New England's done for nearly two decades now; let someone else reward their stars with lucrative deals and just keep on replacing them with cheaper options.

Of course, not everyone can follow the Patriot Way. That's because only one team has Belichick and Brady, and they help to mitigate the risk at every other spot on the roster.

We've already seen Dallas allow their most-talked about free agent target, safety Earl Thomas, sign somewhere else. They weren't willing to pay what he wanted because they don't think any safety is worth that much.

The market dictates price, and usually at least one team is willing to pay it. Baltimore clearly decided that Thomas was worth that contract even if Dallas didn't.

Will market price, which now has DeMarcus Lawrence looking for around $20 million a year, lead to the end of his Cowboys career?

It could, and perhaps we'll look back on this offseason with a lot of regret. But history says that paying the big money doesn't lead to big results.

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!


Dallas Cowboys

What to Expect from Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver Group in 2019

John Williams



Amari Cooper

In a span of a week, the Dallas Cowboys have solidified their wide receiver group with the resigning of Tavon Austin to a one year deal and the signing of former Green Bay Packers Wide Receiver Randall Cobb. Despite the loss of Cole Beasley, the Cowboys have a created a really good group of receivers for Quarterback Dak Prescott to throw to.

Cobb joins a really nice group of players that includes incumbent starters on the outside in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup as well as solid depth players in Austin, Allen Hurns, and Noah Brown. Throw in Cedric Wilson, the Dallas Cowboys sixth round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft and the Cowboys may have one of the deeper receiving corps in the NFL.

The question is, how will the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff delineate the roles?

Let's take a look.

Outside Receivers

As I mentioned before, the Dallas Cowboys are returning their top two options on the outside in Amari Cooper, who is the X wide receiver and Michael Gallup, the Z receiver. Both players will go into week one as the starters at their respective positions in two-wide receiver formations.

Despite some of the overthrows from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup, Gallup had a really nice rookie season and got better as the year went along, even leading the Cowboys in receiving in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. In that game, Gallup recorded the first 100 yard game of his career. Sure, it was in an attempt to comeback by the Dallas Cowboys, but it is impressive nonetheless. His touchdown catch against the Seattle Seahawks the week before was clutch. The Cowboys needed that to take the lead at the end of the first half. 2018 was only the beginning for Michael Gallup. He showed an ability to win with a full offseason to work with Dak Prescott, their chemistry and connection should only improve.

As for Cooper, his presence was felt right away as the offense just looked different once he stepped on the field. It's no coincidence that Dak Prescott's two best career games in terms of passing yardage came with Cooper in 2018. He's such a threat that he opens up space for the rest of the wide receiver group. His route running, speed, ability to run after the catch make him a threat to score any time he's targeted.

Behind Cooper and Gallup, you have options in the event that one of them gets hurt. Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Noah Brown are all players who took snaps on the outside for the Dallas Cowboys in 2018 and did so with effectiveness. Hurns best game of the year came just before the Cooper deal was made as he went for five receptions for 75 yards.

Tavon provided down field speed on several occasions and provides some gadget quality that the Dallas Cowboys love to have. Noah Brown is a player that the Dallas Cowboys love to deploy as a blocker in the running game. While it looked like he might get more run in the passing game in 2019, the depth additions will limit him again to a specialty role. If needed, though, he could be an option to take snaps on the outside as his big frame allows him to box out defensive backs down the field.

There will be snaps on the outside for someone when the Cowboys go to 11 personnel, because of Amari Cooper's ability to slide into the slot.

Slot Receiver

Obviously, the writing is on the wall with who the Dallas Cowboys are planning on deploying in the slot as things stand right now, and that's Randall Cobb.

While Cobb should be penciled in as the starter in the slot, I doubt that he's going to get 100% of the snaps there in 11 or 10 personnel groupings. Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown, and Cedric Wilson could all push for playing time from the slot.

Last month, I wrote a piece about Allen Hurns and his effectiveness in the slot and why the Cowboys should feature him there. With Cobb coming off an injury laden season, the Cowboys would be wise to give some snaps to Hurns along with Tavon Austin.

In Jacksonville, Hurns was incredibly effective from the slot running posts, slants, and ins and outs. His size and route running made him an effective mismatch against linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks alike. Remember, it wasn't long ago that Hurns had a 1,000 yard season with Blake Bortles at the helm.

Tavon Austin's quickness is an asset that could be very effective in the slot as well. Though he lacks size, he's a player that opposing defenses have to account for because of his ability to make big plays once the ball's in his hands.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Cowboys haven't been shy about carrying seven wide receivers on their 53-man rosters and it's possible, though unlikely that they could do it again in 2018. As things stand now, I see Noah Brown and Cedric Wilson as the potential odd men out. Of course, this could all get reshuffled if the Dallas Cowboys use a top 100 pick on a wide receiver in the draft.

With Amari Cooper, Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Randall Cobb only under contract through the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys would be wise to invest at the position despite the strength of the position in 2019.

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Report: Dallas Cowboys Set to Meet with Safety George Iloka

John Williams



Why Cowboys Should Acquire Recently Released S George Iloka

As the Dallas Cowboys continue the process of building a roster capable of taking them back to the playoffs, and hopefully to a Super Bowl, this next season, they’re bringing in another safety to try and strengthen their top 10 defense. This time it’s free agent safety George Iloka, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings.

Per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Dallas Cowboys are set to meet with

Ian Rapoport on Twitter

The #Cowboys are hosting former #Vikings and #Bengals safety George Iloka for a visit tomorrow, source said. They're still looking to add in the secondary.

It will be the third meeting this week that they’ve had with a veteran safety after hosting recently resigned Indianapolis’s colts Safety Clayton Geathers and former Kansas City Chiefs Safety Eric Berry.

The Cowboys feel really good about Xavier Woods at safety, but definitely could use some depth at the position as they head toward the 2019 NFL Draft.

Iloka is coming off a season where he was relegated to a reserve role for the Vikings. In five of the last six seasons, Iloka’s played all 16 games, and the one season he didn’t, he played 12. He has nine career interceptions, and has three seasons with more than 70 total tackles.

Back in August of last year, Brian Martin argued that the Dallas Cowboys should pursue Iloka after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals. He would play the strong or box safety role in the Cowboys defense if they were to come to an agreement.

Stay tuned for more Free Agency coverage from us here at

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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Impact of Free Agency Moves & Rumors

Jess Haynie



Randall Cobb

With most of the marquee NFL free agents already off the market, many are already turning their eyes to the 2019 Draft. Whether a glaring need went unaddressed or the needs have simply changed, the draft offers the next big opportunity for teams like the Dallas Cowboys to stock talent for next season.

While they've been conservative so far this offseason, Dallas has been active in the last few days in covering bases and giving itself more flexibility for the draft. They don't want to have to reach on a talent because of a need, nor do they want to tip their hand too much to the rest of the league.

As of now there are still some significant acquisitions that could happen. Dallas has visited with veteran Safety Eric Berry and Defensive Lineman Malik McDowell, plus are reportedly in trade talks with Miami for Defend End Robert Quinn. Any of these moves could have a big impact on their need levels for the draft.

We've already seen some changes thanks to offseason activity. With Tuesday's signing of Randall Cobb, plus moves to retain Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns, Dallas may not be looking at a receiver as early as we might've thought. The same can be said for Jason Witten's return and the tight end position.

If the draft were today, without accounting for any of the players that the Cowboys have had talks with but remain unsigned, here's how I would rank the team's 2019 draft needs:

  1. Safety
  2. Defensive End
  3. Defensive Tackle
  4. Tight End
  5. Running Back
  6. Wide Receiver
  7. Offensive Tackle
  8. Cornerback
  9. Linebacker
  10. Kicker
  11. Center
  12. Guard
  13. Quarterback (Mike White is their drafted backup project for at least another year.)
  14. Punter (Could add someone to compete with Chris Jones and save some cap dollars.)
  15. Fullback (They re-signed Jamize Olawale, who they barely use anyway. Zero need here.)

I put safety on top because it's the spot that could most use an immediate upgrade and has some pressing future need. Dallas didn't make the big move for Earl Thomas that many hoped for and Jeff Heath's contract expires after this season. Hopefully, a second-round talent could compete for a starting job now and at least replace Heath in 2020.

Even with the Kerry Hyder signing defensive end has some major red flags. DeMarcus Lawrence has sworn he would holdout without a long-term deal. Randy Gregory is suspended again, and now Tyrone Crawford is now facing potential league action from an incident with police last week. Unless the Cowboys think Taco Charlton is going to make a big push in his third year, they could be hurting for a pass rush in 2019.

I expect things with Lawrence will get resolved, and I doubt Crawford will get suspended for more than a game or two if at all. But Dallas could still use another solid DE if they don't get this deal for Robert Quinn done.

Remember, the 2019 Cowboys aren't working with a first-round pick. Barring a trade, they'll be waiting until the 58th pick to make their first selection. That limits the impact potential of their picks and makes what they do with the Day 2 picks all the more critical.

REPORT: Cowboys Visiting With Free Agent S Eric Berry Tuesday

Safety Eric Berry, currently a free agent. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

So what if the Cowboys pull off these three potential moves, adding Berry, McDowell, and Quinn? Each player would help to address the top three needs on my list.

Eric Berry hopefully solves the immediate upgrade need at safety, though it may not do much for the future. He turns 31 this year and was released by Kansas City because of multiple injury issues. Dallas could still consider taking a rookie prospect, perhaps even releasing Jeff Heath for cap savings if needed.

Malik McDowell was considered a first-round talent in 2017 but has never played after a major ATV accident prior to his first training camp with Seattle. If he's finally recovered enough to return to football and play at his original potential, he could give Dallas a talent infusion that none of their draft capital could provide.

Robert Quinn has been around a while but will be just 29 in May, and is still putting up sacks at a solid rate. He's averaged 7.5 sacks the last two years with two different teams. He would go a long way to stabilizing things at defensive end and allowing Dallas look at guys like Gregory and Hyder as icing on the cake.

If Dallas lands all three players then I would adjust the list as follows:

  1. Tight End
  2. Safety
  3. Defensive Tackle
  4. Running Back
  5. Defensive End
  6. Wide Receiver
  7. etc.

If you think about it, the safety and tight end positions would be kind of similar in this scenario. You'd have Eric Berry and Jason Witten as the veteran stopgaps, Xavier Woods and Blake Jarwin as intriguing young guys with starting potential, and Kavon Frazier and Dalton Schultz as other young depth.

However, at every step, safety would be deeper and have more upside. Berry should have more to often than Witten, Woods is more proven than Jarwin, and Frazier is more experienced than Schultz.

Plus, we didn't even mention that you'd have Jeff Heath for experience and versatility at safety. Meanwhile, TE Rico Gathers probably won't be on next year's team.

So yes, I'd vault tight end to the top of the need list. Dallas may like Blake Jarwin but they could find a far more polished and talented player with the 58th pick.

Christian Covington

Defensive Lineman Christian Covington (Maria Lysaker - Cal Sport Media)

Even with McDowell and Christian Covington added to the mix, Dallas would still be wise to address the defensive tackle position. They have several contract issues coming up at once in 2020.

Covington and Maliek Collins will be unrestricted free agents next year. The Cowboys will also likely want to finally shed Tyrone Crawford's contract, with $8 million in cap relief possible. That would leave them pretty bare at defensive tackle.

Dallas could make a move now to solidify their rotation and prepare for the future. They'd have a little more stability at defensive end with assumed multi-year deals for Lawrence and Quinn, making tackle the more immediate concern.

The backup running back spot can't be ignored, with only Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn currently signed behind Ezekiel Elliott. If Dallas doesn't bring back Rod Smith between now and the draft, they may want to spend a high pick for Zeke's relief man and an additional offensive weapon.

Elliott's own contract will be up for discussion as soon. Having a talented player with a four-year rookie deal behind him could give the Cowboys much-needed leverage in any future talks with their franchise back.

~ ~ ~

We'll see if Dallas lands any of the players we've hypothesized about. Any of them would help lessen the need at their positions, but those would still remain important areas for the Cowboys to look at in the upcoming draft.

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