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Cowboys' free-agency approach about filling holes, not finding stars

Darren McFadden turned out to be a bargain when the Cowboys signed him in 2015. Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have altered their philosophy in free agency over the past few years, choosing to stay out of the high-priced end of the pool and instead fill holes. It has resulted in 28 signings at less than $116 million in total contract value. Here’s a look at how those decisions have panned out on the field:

Total signings: 28* (tied-16th in NFL)

Total contract value: $116,363,600 (26th in NFL)

Three-year W-L: 29-19

Biggest hit: Darren McFadden. That McFadden can be considered the biggest hit speaks to how the Cowboys have approached free agency. He signed a two-year deal in 2015 that included just $200,000 guaranteed. It wasn’t until the sixth game of that season that he became the every-down back, but he was able to finish fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,089 yards despite uneven backup quarterback play that contributed to the Cowboys’ 4-12 finish. As well as McFadden played, however, the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in 2016. Looking at a reserve role anyway, McFadden’s 2016 season was done in with a broken elbow suffered last spring that limited him to three games. He might be able to find a better opportunity in free agency elsewhere this offseason, but he has value as a backup to Elliott in 2017.

Biggest miss: Greg Hardy. He was signed to a one-year deal without any guaranteed money, and while there was not a salary-cap drag on the team, there was an overall drag on the team. Hardy was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season for violations of the personal conduct policy while with the Carolina Panthers in 2014. He managed to record six sacks during his time in Dallas, but four of those sacks came in his first four games. He was not a difference-maker. His work ethic was questionable at best, and there is a reason why the Cowboys talked up their chemistry as a big part of their success in 2016. It’s also telling that Hardy went unsigned in 2016 and is likely never to play in the NFL again.

Sneaky-good move: Jack Crawford. He was largely an afterthought when he joined the Cowboys in 2014 following his release by the Oakland Raiders, but he has put up 9.5 sacks over the past 38 games as part of the team’s defensive line rotation. He can play all four spots along the defensive line, if necessary, but played mostly the three technique and left defensive end. For $1.1 million in 2016, that was a good buy. He is set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2017. The Cowboys would like to keep him, but the focus again will be on price.

Verdict: The Cowboys believe the best way to improve the roster is through the draft, not via high-priced free agents. The last time they paid big money was in 2012 for Brandon Carr, who received a five-year, $50 million deal. While Carr played out the length of the contract, he never made a Pro Bowl and took a pay cut to stay in 2016. If the Cowboys are going to overpay players, they would much rather do it on players they have cultivated over the years. It doesn’t mean they will always be right, but the odds improve.

*Signings made during free agency period beginning in March.