I’ve long contended that the Cowboys’ approach to building a roster holds one value above all others: don’t be bad. Don’t post five-win seasons in the name of scoring high draft picks, let alone three of them consecutively. Stay relevant and be in the conversation once December arrives. Play in big-time games against rivals with the playoffs or playoff seeding on the line.
Because of this approach, they have generally eschewed the risky ventures of blockbuster trades or splashy free-agent acquisitions. Those types of moves can go poorly and have the potential to blow up in your face the way the Roy Williams and Joey Galloway trades did. They did trade for Amari Cooper in October 2018, knowing they had a competitive team that season, but that’s been about it over the last decade. (They also—sorry—moved on from Cooper in part because they were terrified of not having the cap space to retain Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, and/or CeeDee Lamb down the road.)
The Cowboys want to stay in the mix, and they’re very good at that. They entered last season with the league’s highest percentage of homegrown players on their active roster. This has produced a lot of regular-season wins—eighth-most over the last 10 seasons. It is mostly a fine plan. The problem is, despite Jerry Jones’ wildcatter reputation, this has resulted in a philosophy where the club is so cautious, it has passed on even being opportunistic.
Until this week.
The Cowboys’ trading a compensatory fifth-round pick for cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the epitome of the move Dallas should be looking to make every off-season. It’s a low-risk, potentially high-reward transaction that yields a walk-in starter. Maybe Gilmore’s production will fall off of a cliff this season (more on that later), but he has only one year left on his contract. One move does not make a philosophical shift; we have no idea if this trade is the canary in the coal mine for how Dallas will now operate. But if the Cowboys ever want to get over the hump, it ought to be.
Jones, who turned 80 last fall, often makes reference to not being sure how much time he has left. Mike McCarthy is not a coach you hire with the intention of molding him through growing pains; he has a Super Bowl win to his name. Dak Prescott is highly compensated and most likely near the end of his prime. Given this dynamic, it makes no sense for the Cowboys to try to fill every hole through the draft, even if they are one of the best drafting teams in recent history. No matter how good they are at it, that process is hardly a certainty, and most of the players who do hit need incubation time that this team might not have time to afford them.
This isn’t to suggest that the alternative is an all-in approach a la the Rams of two years ago or even last year’s Eagles. There is a middle path here that recognizes the organization is in win-now mode without mortgaging the farm.
Many years ago, I was introduced to the concept of a team’s “win curve” by the baseball website fangraphs.com. The idea is an intuitive one: the more wins an organization has, the closer to a championship it is, the more significant added wins become. So if a player like Gilmore makes Dallas a 13-win team rather than a 12-win team, that carries more weight than a team with four wins becoming a five-win team. I don’t think the Cowboys properly understand this. Or they do, and they’re standing pat because that path comes with little-to-no risk.
But here’s the thing: trading for Gilmore also comes with little to no risk. All it took to land one of the most decorated cornerbacks of the last decade was a fifth-round compensatory pick, of which Dallas had two this offseason. That’s no accident: the Cowboys tend to be near the top of the league in compensatory picks because … they draft well. Other teams want the players Dallas scouts and selects, even if they no longer fit in Dallas for cap or performance or roster log-jam reasons. To be sure, the best way to “beat the draft,” to the degree that is possible, is to have a ton of picks. But when a team is routinely among the league leaders in picks awarded, it only makes sense to look to move at least one of them. Especially when this wasn’t even the highest fifth-round compensatory pick in Dallas’ cupboard.
This is the benefit of being really good in April. Will McClay and, yes, the Joneses, have a proven track record of adding marginal value throughout the draft. The most recent example is last year’s fifth-round pick, DaRon Bland, who already looks to be a capable contributor in the secondary. When a team is this accomplished at mining diamonds and is on something of a timeline to win sooner than later, it’s perfectly fine to deal a third, fourth, or fifth-round pick each year in exchange for proven veterans. In fact, it should be a priority.
Look no further than the secondary for a blueprint of how this should go. The Cowboys have an elite young talent who was picked in the second round in 2020 and is about to become a highly paid player (Trevon Diggs). They have two players selected late in the draft who have become solid starters (Bland and newly re-signed Donovan Wilson). Two veterans have been signed to shrewd, low-risk free-agency deals (Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse). Now they add a former All-Pro for basically nothing (Gilmore). This is a perfect blueprint for how to build.
The Cowboys deserve praise for the Gilmore trade for another, more subtle reason. Even teams that draft well miss and miss a lot. Because of what psychologists term “negativity bias,” these are the picks that stand out to us. Acquiring Gilmore is an admission by the team that cornerbacks Kelvin Joseph and Nashon Wright, its second and third picks in 2021 respectively, are not ready to start and probably never will be. That’s an important acknowledgement. It helps Dallas escape sunk costs instead of getting too attached to mediocrity. It’s what smart teams do.
But what about Gilmore? Well, if you’re an Online Cowboys Fan, you’ve probably seen Marcus Mosher’s tweet:
We all remember the Patriots’ version of Gilmore, who was the best corner in the NFL. In 2019 he became the fourth defensive back since 1995 to become NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his time in New England injured, then played hurt for a year in Carolina. Last year, though, he turned in a bounceback season in Indianapolis, which NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport says was due to Gilmore finally being healthy after undergoing surgery on his meniscus. He’ll play this season at 33, so the miles might finally catch up to him and his body might go south for good. But if he’s just in the neighborhood of the ability he displayed last year, he’ll be a huge upgrade over everyone Dallas played across from Diggs last year. He’s one of the smartest corners to ever play the game. You owe it to yourself to watch Gilmore explaining how processing skills and technique work in tandem.
The Cowboys made two uncharacteristic moves this week: the trade for Gilmore and the release of fan favorite and locker-room presence Ezekiel Elliott. After the playoff defeat to the 49ers, I wrote that the Cowboys’ title window had most likely already closed. I still mostly believe that. But if they are to have any chance of extending it, they must do more than just draft well. They have to continue to admit mistakes and be opportunistic about addressing those mistakes.
The Cowboys will never go all in. But they need to put some skin in the game to avoid staying stuck at above-average. The addition of Gilmore is a good start.