At the beginning of free agency, I pointed out that the uncapped 2010 league year created an incentive for teams to cut salary rather than spend wildly. For all the predictions of unfettered signings, even the normally reckless Redskins have refrained from handing out new contracts willy nilly.
At the Ranch, the Cowboys have been stone quiet, failing to schedule a free agent visit, never mind signing a player. A review of their 2010 and 2011 outlays shows a team taking the long view. The Cowboys prepared for the 2010 and the 2011 seasons, fully anticipating that 2010 would lack a cap and that 2011 could see a disruption of some point.
On the other hand, the team seems more than prepared should a new CBA be negotiated and ratified before the '11 season. In fact, they look poised to thrive in a new edition of the old system. It's almost as if they expect to go capped again in roughly a year's time.
The team's salary structure also suggests that Dallas may privilege certain positions in this month's draft, as much for their cap ramifications as for talent ones.
Pop a Cap in Their Wallets
Let's begin with a hypothetical. What happens if a new CBA is worked out? I'm going to assume one will come, sometime in the spring or summer of 2011. The Players and owners may take a hard line but for all their belligerent rhetoric, they'll find a way to keep the games going. Look what it took to get baseball back in the public's good graces after it scuttled the '94 World Series -- the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGuire home run race that "saved baseball." which now turns out to be the product of steroids and a lot of looking the other way by game officials. Look also at the NHL. Their owners went thermonuclear and shut the game down for a season to impose a salary cap on their labor. The bottom lines may be healthier but when does pro hockey get prime coverage these days?
The NFL won't risk its status as the top league. We might see a week or two of work stoppages, but I would be very surprised if any real games are missed. Ownership and management have a basic system in place that benefits both of them. They're having a tug of war over the percentages each side takes home.
When the new CBA comes, it should have a cap. And if it has a cap, I think we'll return to the pre-'10 system for classifying restricted and unrestricted free agents. Then, a player could become a UFA after four full seasons. That has been pushed back a year in the uncapped system but this will be one of the major negotiating points for the players. Pro football hurts, and careers are short. The players went through several painful rounds of negotiations and court rulings for the right to earn a second contract while still in their prime years. They'll compromise on other things before this.
Which means that any '11 free agent class under a new CBA would be extraordinary. It would be a "double class," composed of the regularly scheduled '11 drop of UFA and the '10 bunch who saw their restricted status extended a year by the current uncapped rules. Any team with cap space could find some real buys in that market, especially if it was already competitive.
Which brings us to the '10 Cowboys. Stephen and Jerry Jones have clearly taken the long view towards this potential free agent bonanza, from a defensive and offensive perspective. Their current roster is locked down. Of their current starters and key role players, only Deion Anderson, Alan Ball, Bobby Carpenter, Kyle Kosier and Marcus Spears are schedule to become free agents in 2011. All are important, but none of these are impact players. Furthermore, do you see a correlation between their positions and Dallas' draft targets? Looking at the names and positions of draft prospects, which spots come up a lot?
Fullback, free safety, inside linebacker, guard and defensive end, the positions these five guys play.
Now, let's look at the cap. I know, there isn't one at the moment, but where would the team be positioned if one were in place, or if one would be re-instated next year?
Our own OCC put a roster chart together for me and it suggests that Dallas currently has contracts or tender offers for roughly $138 million. That's due to rise even more at some point, since Miles Austin will be given a long-term deal soon. The '09 cap was $127 million. If the owners get a bigger share of general revenue in the new CBA, the cap could flatten out or even drop a little bit. The Cowboys would likely have to pare some salary in order to fit under the cap.
That said, it's not as hard as it might first appear. The team has structured many of its larger deals to have the largest cap figures for '10 and '11, dropping off later. It's almost as if the team expected an uncapped gap, into which formerly accelerated bonuses could be dumped!
Getting Bang for Jerry's Bucks
Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, he of Moneyball fame, told the Financial Times last week that,
"Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts," explains Beane, "because once they stop performing, they become immoveable. And as they become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy..."
The Cowboys have increasingly played by Beane's maxims. Their strong '05 and '08 drafts have give them some real high-impact/lost-cost bargains. CB Mike Jenkins' cap hit would be 1.4 million this year; Felix Jones' would be just under 1.5M; OLB Anthony Spencer's $1.67 M.
Even the superstars are reasonably paid, for the most part. Demarcus Ware gets $11 M this year. Tony Romo's '10 cap number would be $10.9 M., a ridiculously small amount for a Pro Bowler at the game's most expensive position. Jay Ratliff will play a mean nose tackle for $3.75 M this year.
Yet, the Cowboys have a handful of bad contracts. I see five that violate the Billy Beane rules -- they're large and are, with two exceptions, for veterans past 30. They are, to quote Beane a second time, contracts that are paying for past performance, not for anticipated play.
|Player||2010 Cap Value|
|Andre Gurode||$ 4.8 million|
|Marion Barber||$ 5.8 million|
|Leonard Davis||$ 8.4 million|
|Terence Newman||$ 11.0 million|
||$ 15.0 million|
|Total|| $ 44.9 million
That $44.9 million represents 32.5% of Dallas '10 payroll. That's right, these five guys take up almost one third of Dallas salary outlay. Let's turn our attention back to the draft. Think of the names the Cowboys have brought in for visits -- the Iuputis, the Pounceys, the LaFells, the Bryants, the Cooks and the Owusu-Ansahs. They play the same positions these bad-deal guys play, no?
Jerry would clearly love to get some young talent in house to replace these monster deals. Moving just a couple of them could put Dallas in even better position for a new capped world. Dallas already shaved over $12 million worth of '10 salaries when it cut Flozell Adams and Ken Hamlin last week. Each player's understudy will cost roughly 10% of the veteran: Doug Free will play left tackle for $625,000, where Adams would have cost $7.5 M. Alan Ball will make $550,000, compared to the $5.5 M Hamlin was set to earn.
If you're looking for a reason to take wide receiver seriously at the 27 spot, look no further than Roy Williams' $14.97 million tumor of a '10 deal. It's the largest contract on the Jones family's ledger this year. Does anybody think Roy Willie ranks even in the top ten players on this team, on merit?
When you think draft, keep money in mind. The team can draft according to need, but its needs extends beyond talent shortfalls. Dallas also needs cap flexibility, should the cap system be extended. The good deals and the bad deals up and down the roster could have a lot to say about which players come off the board when the Cowboys start picking in two weeks.