Sports Outside the Beltway

Overpaying for Free Agents Price of Draft Failure

Jean-Jacques Taylor nails it in his analysis of why the Cowboys overpaid for underachieving offensive lineman Leonard Davis.

Three years ago, the Cowboys made two of their worst draft choices in the past decade, when they took tackle Jacob Rogers in the second round and guard Stephen Peterman in the third. Each was the definition of a bust. Jerry Jones is still paying for those wretched selections Bill Parcells encouraged him to make.


On Monday, Jones discussed the seven-year, $49.6 million deal, including a $16 million signing bonus he gave gargantuan offensive lineman Leonard Davis.

Let that sink in for a moment. Jones gave Davis, the second player taken in the 2001 draft, a bigger signing bonus than Deion Sanders, Troy Aikman or Emmitt Smith received. This for a player who has been labeled an underachiever by those in Arizona and has never played in the Pro Bowl.


But that’s the cost of doing business in today’s NFL, where seemingly every team has unlimited salary-cap room. Besides, other coveted free-agent linemen such as Eric Steinbach and Kris Dielman received similar deals.

Now you know why there’s such a premium on drafting and developing players. The money in today’s NFL is ridiculously high, so you can’t focus on the dollars. You have to figure out whether the Cowboys are better at guard with Davis or Marco Rivera. No need to even answer that question. Is Dallas better at tackle with Davis or Marc Colombo, an unrestricted free agent who started 16 games for the Cowboys last season? They’re easily better with Davis.

But that’s not the lineup Jerry wants to start the 2007 opener. He wants Colombo at right tackle, Davis at right guard, Andre Gurode at center, Kyle Kosier at left guard and Flozell Adams, playing for a contract, at left tackle. On paper, that would be the Cowboys’ best offensive line in years. On paper, that line would give the Cowboys an opportunity to physically dominate games in the fourth quarter. That offensive line wouldn’t have weak links such as Rivera was last season or Rob Petitti and Torrin Tucker were the year before.

“We’ve missed on a couple of our picks over the last three years. This gives us a chance to really play catch-up,” Jones said of signing Davis. “This gives us a chance to get back where we’d be if we had gotten better results with our draft picks.”

But it costs so much more, when teams miss on premium draft picks. Rogers and Peterman would still be on their rookie contracts with salary-cap figures of less than a $1 million. Instead, the Cowboys have spent nearly $30 million in signing bonuses to sign Davis, Rivera, Kosier and Jason Fabini, in part, because Rogers and Peterman couldn’t play. That number will go up if Dallas reaches an agreement with Colombo.

Mickey Spagnola agrees, noting that Davis’ versatility was also a big plus.

[T]he Cowboys’ No. 1 priority in free agency was the offensive line, and here is the reason: “We had McQuistan, Kosier and Flo,” Stephen Jones said. “That’s it. Everyone else was either missing, hurt or unsigned.”

Here is what scared the Cowboys. Of the 10 offensive linemen who finished out the season on the roster, along with one on injured reserve, the aforementioned three were the only sure guys returning and capable of playing.

See, there was center Andre Gurode, headed toward free agency, although the Cowboys headed him off. Al Johnson was an unrestricted free agent. Marc Colombo was an unrestricted free agent. There was no way they were going to count on Jason Fabini, a total washout last year.

There was (is) no way the Cowboys could count on Marco Rivera returning after having a second surgery on a ruptured back disk in two years, and they are still in limbo over his status. The only other two guys on the 53-man roster, Cory Procter and Joe Berger, were exclusive rights free agents, though neither played a lick last year. And as for the IR guy, the Cowboys waived E.J. Whitley.

Yeah, you bet there was a need on the offensive line.

So the Cowboys began by signing Gurode to that six-year, $30 million deal, and paid him the $10 million signing bonus after starting just one full year at center. But there still was that huge void on the right side of the line.

What did they need, though, a tackle or a guard?

Colombo wanted to take a peek into free agency, though he’s sort of in the same boat as New Orleans right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who had started only 10 games his first three years in the league and was coming off a serious patella tendon injury that cost him the entire 2005 season before starting full-time in 2006. He just signed a two-year, $7 million deal with $5 million guaranteed in 2007. Can’t imagine the Cowboys will offer Colombo much more.

So tackle was a need.

But so was guard. When asked about Rivera, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones said, “That’s up in the air and think it’s up in the air for him. It would be premature to say what direction it will go.”

So yeah, guard is a need since the only other guy on the team with experience is Kyle Kosier, who started on the left side last year.

Now I know what Bill Parcells had to say about Cory Procter. But the guy has yet to play an NFL game.

“We’re not going to count on a guy who hasn’t played, playing,” Stephen Jones said. “You got to have more options.”

Or more than one inexperienced solution to a potential problem.

By signing Davis, they have a potential solution to either problem, tackle or guard. And if you listened closely to Jerry Jones, an alternative to a potential future left tackle need.

The possibility of getting a three-for-one does not come cheap – or often.

Jerry Jones called it “short-term, long-term flexibility. Offensive line was a real must for us.

“Leonard gives us a chance . . . we missed on a couple of our picks the last three years, and this gives us a chance to make up.”

You know who he’s talking about. The Cowboys took a swing and a miss on 2004 second-round pick Jacob Rogers. They took a swing and a miss on 2004 third-round pick Stephen Peterman. And this is the result of making first-day misses in the draft: You pay for your mistakes in free agency. Generally, you overpay, a sort of double jeopardy for missing badly on the first day of the draft. That’s the penalty.

But at least when the Cowboys did pay, guaranteeing Davis $18.75 million on the seven-year deal, they bought themselves some flexibility on the offensive line. He can play guard or tackle.

And when Stephen Jones was asked what happens if they don’t get Colombo re-signed and Rivera can’t play, what do they do knowing Davis can only fill one of those gaping holes, he had a quick answer. “The big thing then will be the draft,” he said. “You’ve got to have more options. We’re not just going to say Procter is the answer or McQuistan is the answer.”

It would have been nice, though, if Bill Parcells were a little better at shopping for offensive linemen at the grocery store, though.

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