Examining Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 NFL Free Agency Moves, Salary Cap Situation
Dallas Cowboys' Salary Cap Situation Not Exactly Peachy
The Dallas Cowboys are once again in a pickle coming off another .500 season. The team is still way over the salary cap, even with the raised ceiling for this season, so the contracts of many highly-paid veterans will have to be restructured again to make their cap numbers smaller in 2014, but much larger in 2015 and beyond. That means the NFL free agency period this offseason is going to be another tough one for the Cowboys and their fans.
Put simply, nothing has changed. However, that means other things could change.
There are 12 players who wore the star in 2013 and are now free agents and Dallas needs to bring back at least two of them and preferably four. In addition, the Cowboys have to have enough cap room to sign their 2014 NFL Draft picks and after that’s done, there will be minimal (if any) salary cap room to sign coveted free agents.
Thus, the Cowboys could realistically part ways with multiple players who have been minor faces of the franchise for the past few years to create salary cap room for 2014 while not doing themselves any favors for 2015 and beyond. This makes the Cowboys’ potential window for title contention even smaller and that window won’t exist until the team has enough talent on the depth chart to get through the lowly NFC East, much less the rest of the conference.
Of course, one could easily argue the Cowboys won’t have a championship window until Jerry Jones is gone, but that’s another Rant. So now that we have opened up about half a dozen cans of worms, let’s dive in.
If there’s one thing that you can safely bet will happen this offseason, it’s that the Cowboys will make Miles Austin a post-June 1 cut. That will save the team $5.5 million in cap space while also adding $5 million in dead money to the 2015 cap. The plus side is Dallas has plenty of talent at receiver and if even if that wasn’t the case, Austin isn’t going to help much because he’s always in the training room or on the sidelines in street clothes. Many Cowboys beat writers assume the money created by cutting Austin will be used to sign the team’s draft picks this year.
This is by far the biggest question mark in Dallas this offseason. It’s a virtual certainty that Miles Austin will be a post-June 1 cut, but DeMarcus Ware creates a different situation entirely. Unlike Austin, he’s still valuable to the team and it can be argued the Cowboys should keep him and gamble that he returns to form in 2014 after a down year in 2013. However, doing so will require the Cowboys to restructure his contract yet again, which would create almost $9 million in cap space to use this offseason, but it would also cause his cap number to balloon to well over $20 million in 2015 and make him that much harder to cut at that time. Many are predicting Dallas will cut Ware this offseason to avoid that situation altogether, but doing so would mean the team thinks it has a viable successor on the roster.
We’re not here to debate whether or not the Cowboys should have given Tony Romo his lucrative extension before last season because that’s a waste of time. What they should do with his deal moving forward is the issue.
Romo’s cap number in 2014 is almost $22 million, which will be cut down by quite a bit through restructuring, meaning his cap number will be even more astronomical in 2015 and beyond. That’s an absolutely horrible idea from a long-term standpoint because eventually the Cowboys will just have to pay him what Jerry Jones promised, regardless of what it does to the cap. So theoretically, Romo could be in Ware’s shoes in three years (or sooner) and there’s nothing the Cowboys will be able to do about it. However, there’s nothing that can be done about it now because Romo can’t become expendable like Ware may have to be this year or next from a financial standpoint.
Another star player who isn’t expendable at this point is Sean Lee, who also received a nice, new contract just before last season. His deal will also be restructured to create salary cap space for the 2014 offseason, but that puts him in the same boat as Romo down the road. His cap number is $7.5 million right now, but it will likely be cut in half through restructuring, which means his current 2015 cap number of $4.5 million will likely double. But again, there’s really nothing Dallas can do at this point because of all the backloading Jerry has done over the past few years and will continue to do.
With a current cap number of just over $12 million, Brandon Carr is a major candidate for contract restructuring as well. However, there’s speculation around Valley Ranch that he may not get a restructure if the Cowboys can somehow avoid it so they won’t be in a Ware-like situation with Carr down the road. In other words, it’ll be a lot easier to release Carr in a few years if his cap number is still somewhat normal.
As usual, Jason Witten’s deal will be redone again as well, which will open up almost $3 million in cap space for 2014. That will further increase his 2015 cap number to over $10 million, but he won’t be a cap casualty candidate unless Ware and Carr are both released and Dallas is still way above the cap with no other options at that point.
After his breakout year in the 4-3 defense, Jason Hatcher is now a free agent who has already made it clear he will sign with the highest bidder this offseason. Put simply, the Cowboys need Hatcher to keep their pass-rush somewhat respectable, especially if Ware is released. Among the 17 teams that ran the 4-3 in 2013, the Cowboys ranked seventh in total pressure on opposing quarterbacks (combined sacks, hits and hurries). Without Hatcher (and potentially Ware), Dallas would be hard pressed to duplicate those numbers in 2014 under Rod Marinelli, much less improve upon them.
The problem is there’s no cap room to use to re-sign Hatcher, who will undoubtedly receive some hefty offers from other pass-rusher-needy teams. If the Cowboys do all the restructuring previously mentioned and cut Ware, then they would have enough to at least make Hatcher think about staying, but then nothing left over for other free agents. With all the holes Dallas needs to fill this offseason, that ain’t good.
The one major factor with Brian Waters is whether or not he’ll want to play again after coming out of retirement to play for the Cowboys in 2013 and then injuring his triceps, which put him on Injured Reserve. If he does, the Cowboys likely won’t have to pay him a fortune since he signed a one-year, $3 million deal last season.
Put simply, the Cowboys absolutely have to keep that much cap space to re-sign Waters if he wants to play again. His presence on the offensive line made a huge difference for this team that has struggled up front on that side of the ball for the past several years, even after he was lost for the season. That kind of effect can’t be taught and Waters’ experience is invaluable, so re-signing him can’t be optional if he wants to keep playing.
Another looming headache for the Cowboys is Dez Bryant’s contract as the star receiver is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract. Needless to say, he will demand a high dollar on the open market and Jerry Jones has made it clear that his top priority is extending Bryant’s contract before the 2014 season is over. The problem is cap space because to do that, the Cowboys will need to create a ton of room just for Bryant’s new contract, which will also have to be backloaded, which means more of the same problem for Dallas down the road. But again, it’s not really optional at this point because Bryant isn’t expendable.
Another former first-round pick who is in need of a new deal is Tyron Smith, who is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal. The former top-10 pick has blossomed into a solid offensive lineman as he made the Pro Bowl for the first time this past season. The Cowboys can’t afford to lose their prized left tackle in free agency this time next year, so extending his contract is also a must, although Dallas really doesn’t have a lot of cap room with which to work. Still, it has to be done, which means more cap problems in 2015 and beyond.
Other Potential, Necessary Moves
Once the Cowboys decide what they’re doing in free agency and whether or not they’ll cut Ware, then a decision can be made as to which position they’ll target in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. If Hatcher is re-signed, then the defensive line will be good enough for Marinelli to work with it in his first year as the defensive coordinator and the Cowboys can use that first-round pick on a solid safety who can start right away.
If that ideal scenario plays out, then Alabama’s Hasean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix would be an ideal choice for the Cowboys with the No. 17 overall pick, which could become No. 16 if they win the coin toss with the Ravens. If Dallas didn’t get a safety who could undoubtedly start right away in the draft, then finding one late in free agency would be essentially required. The Cowboys cannot enter the 2014 season with J.J. Wilcox or Jeff Heath as their starting free safety. Sure, Dallas spent a third-round pick on Wilcox just one year ago, but an unquestioned quality starter is necessary to ensure the defense doesn’t put up historically awful numbers again.
Kyle Orton is another candidate for contract restructuring since he’s one of the most highly-paid backup quarterbacks in the league. The Cowboys’ other option would be to cut him and bring in a younger passer for less cash, but Jerry doesn’t seem fond of that idea.
The Cowboys used the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer in 2012 and 2013, but that can’t happen again in 2014. For starters, it will cost way too much — his nearly $11 million cap number was enough to drive everyone in Dallas crazy last season and the Cowboys certainly can’t waste valuable cap space on a player who is coming off a major injury and still hasn’t found if he truly fits in the 4-3 scheme at the NFL level. Hatcher is the obvious choice for the franchise tag, but he’ll likely cost in the $13 million range, which would be way too much for the cash-strapped Cowboys. Back to the drawing board on that one.
Chris Jones is also a free agent and although punters seem interchangeable, his 45-yard-per-punt average isn’t anything to just write off. Assuming he’ll take a regular punter’s contract, he should — and likely will — be kept.