Cowboys 'Happy Tampering Day!' - The Window-Shopping Begins

'I’m not a big fan of free agency,' Cowboys COO Stephen Jones says - yet he's already started the process of overseeing Dallas' window shopping on 'Legal Tampering Day.' Scoop on Clayborn, Hatcher, Lamar Miller and the plan from inside Cowboys HQ:

Happy “Legal Tampering Day’’! ... but why is Cowboys COO Stephen Jones not letting us blow out the candles on the cake?!

 "I’m not a big fan of free agency;I’ll be the first to admit it," Jones said as today marks the opening of what in the NFL is unofficially called “ Legal Tampering Day.’’ “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.”

Jones is right about the escalated scale of the way needy teams pay overrated players.

But that doesn't mean free agency is an unworthy tool when it comes to "putting your team together'' -- indeed, it can be "great'' if done right.

Last year, the Cowboys did an early deal (the sort that, as with this season, prevents teams from signing unrestricted free agents until Wednesday, the March 9 opening of the NFL business year) with Darren McFadden. He's an imperfect player and he was a reclamation project of sorts but Dallas got him for two years at $1.5 annually and he was a 1,000-yard rusher last season.

That was the proper use of the "tool.''

I'll even argue that Dallas did the Greg Hardy thing right. He arrived as a Cowboy a full week after McFadden. That's a “second tier,’’ and Hardy — a player who if not surrounded by controversy would’ve commanded $13 million a year -- ended up making $8.8 million. Unless you believe Hardy's personal issues are solely responsible for the Cowboys' slip from 12-4 to 4-12, the Hardy deal was actually a solid dice roll for a team that desperately needed pass-rush help.

Which, by the way, Dallas needs yet again.

The Cowboys presently have $12 million of room under the $155-mil cap and have numerous ways of expanding that room to $24 mil and beyond. (See "The Tyron/Tyrone Triggers.'') But even noting Stephen's recent reflection on the process,  it is a tool to be used — and one that can be used wisely.

What's cooking to the moment:

*Sources tell CHQ that Dallas has built its parameters for an offer to Atlanta defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn, a former first-round pick who at 6-3, 280 has position flex. 

*Jason Hatcher visited this morning with CHQ to inform us he'd been released by the Redskins. "I'm free so I'm not closing the door on anyone,'' Hatch tells us. (If Dallas gets Clayborn, there's probably no need for the 34-year-old Hatcher.)

*Running back Lamar Miller is admired inside of Valley Ranch. (See our analysis here.) But he has broken off talks with the Dolphins due to a reported desire for a monster deal -- and Dallas has its line in cement there. So his availability (even though he's a Cowboys fan) does not automatically bode well should the Cowboys come calling.

*The Cowboys will examine the QB market. Look for Robert Griffin III to get offers that include a chance to start (which Dallas cannot offer). Look for the likes of Colt McCoy to be worth visits.

*Dallas will not engage in a bidding war for, say, Miami pass-rusher Olivier Vernon. Charles Johnson is probably preferred over Mario Williams, but there are no plans to open up the vault there, either. (Williams reported told teams he would sign right away if in receipt of an offer of $10-mil per season. So that's probably that.)

The Cowboys will prioritize their own free agents. That list includes Ro McClain, Mo 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.

*The McClain plan is part of the reason the Cowboys tell CHQ they won't chase James Laurinaitis.

*The Claiborne plan, if Dallas pulls it off, helps with secondary depth. (We still believe Mo is very interested in being courted elsewhere.)  There is still no decision on what to do with Brandon Carr's contract ... but if there is a vacancy, Patrick Robinson of the Chargers might be a cornerback fit. Like Adrian Clayborn, he's a former first-round pick. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is a fan of pedigree, a lesson learned from Al Davis.

*Rams D-linemen Chris Long and William Hayes have name value. But Long is not highly-thought-of here simply because he seems to run out of gas as seasons wear on. Hayes is interesting, but 30. As a rule, Dallas doesn't want older guys here. ... but a "bridge'' is sometimes a reality.

“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.


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