Time For Some Salary Cap Wizardry, Stephen Jones.

Go get 'em, Stephen.

As we found out yesterday, the league and players appear to have decided to reinstate the previous free agency rules, whereby players with 4, 5 and 6 years of service will be free agents, whenever the new CBA is put in place.

And while there is now a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over these new rules, particularly as they pertain to Cowboys players like Doug Free, nobody can honestly claim to be surprised by the players and owners agreeing to reinstate the old rules. Least of all the front offices around the league, who are all likely to have had plans in place for any free agent scenario. So where do teams stand, especially the Cowboys?

At first glance, things don't look so bad for the Cowboys. In fact, they look pretty good: back in February, Mike Sando from ESPN's NFC West blog put together an overview of how the 508 potential unrestricted free agents are split by NFL teams. The good news is that with ten unrestricted free agents on their roster, the Cowboys have the third lowest total of all teams in the NFL.

According to the NFLPA, the 508 unrestricted free agents are made up of players with a minimum of three accrued seasons heading into the 2010 season and whose contracts expire or can void this offseason.

The ten affected Cowboys players are LT Doug Free, DE's Stephen Bowen, Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, WR Sam Hurd, OG Kyle Kosier, SS Gerald Sensabaugh, OT Alex Barron, FS/CB Alan Ball and LB Leon Williams.

Going by Sando's list, only the Bills with nine and the Broncos with seven have fewer free agents on their current locked-out roster. The average across the NFL are 16 free agents, and our divisional opponents are right around that average: the Redskins have 15, The Giants and Eagles both have 17 free agents.

Obviously, I don't know many of these players each team wants to re-sign and how many of them are scrubs, but it's got to be a good thing for the Cowboys if they have less to do within their own team and can focus on acquiring the right free agents.

But now for the bad news. If - and that's a big if - If the salary cap rules remain the way they are, the Cowboys may have a lot less flexibility with their cap space than many here and elsewhere have speculated. How often have you heard somebody say something like, "Get rid of Barber, Newman and Williams, and that should give you enough money to sign so-and-so?" Well, that person may not have been familiar with the intricacies of the salary cap and how it affects the Cowboys. So here's a small primer on two important concepts, Proration and Acceleration, with a shout out to Raul Villaronga who initially put this together:

Proration: This term defines how signing bonuses are counted against the salary cap. To put it simply, the signing bonus is divided by number of contract years, and the result is applied to a player's base salary. The base salary plus the prorated portion of the signing bonus give you the cap salary for a given player. With some exceptions, the maximum number of years you can use for proration is six years.

Acceleration: This term describes what happens to the prorated portion of the signing bonus if a player is removed from the team's roster. This could mean a release, a trade, or if a player is lost via the waiver wire. Essentially, all future portions of the signing bonus are lumped together in the current year's cap number.

The exception to this rule used to be when a player was released after the June 1. Releasing a player after June 1 allows the team to count the current year's prorated bonus amount to this year's cap and the remaining prorated portions against next year's cap.

So if a contract from this past summer had a prorated $1 million signing bonus with 3 years left, releasing the player prior to June 1st would mean the cap number for the bonus against this year would have been $3 million, but releasing the player after June 1st would have $1 million against this year's cap and $2 million against next year's cap.

So what we'll do now is look at the usual suspects as Cowboys release candidates and figure out the salary cap ramifications of releasing them.

We'll use a straight-up approach where we simply look at the signing bonus and prorate it over the length of the contract. This will not be an entirely accurate picture of the Cowboys salary cap situation, as there are special rules governing likely-to-be-earned incentives, but it will should be close enough give us a good idea of the general situation that Stephen Jones is facing right now.

in M$ 2011 base salary Yearly prorated signing bonus 2011 Cap Salary Years remaining on contract Cap hit if released Additional Cap space if released
Terence Newman 8.0 2.0 10.0 3 6.0 4.0
Igor Olshansky 3.3 1.5 4.8 2 3.0 1.8
Leonard Davis 6.0 2.3 8.3 3 6.9 1.4
Marion Barber 4.3 2.0 6.3 3 6.0 0.3
Marc Colombo 2.4 2.3 4.7 2 4.6 0.1
Total 24.0 10.1 34.1  - -
26.5 7.6

[Note: The contract data is taken from rotoworld.com and other published reports. If you think it's wrong, let me know and I'll make corrections if required.]

The five players in the table above will cost Jerry Jones $24M in real money in the 2011 season. In salary cap money, the players will cost $34.1M because of the prorated signing bonuses. Releasing them would cost $26.5M in accelerated signing bonuses against the 2011 cap. In total, the Cowboys would clear cap space of 'only' $7.6M by releasing these five players.

The Cowboys could also look at Bradie James and Keith Brooking for potential cap relief. Both are in the last year of their contracts and releasing them now would save a total of $5.7M in cap space (James: $3.5M, Brooking: $2.2M), but both are likely to play out their contracts.

Where's Roy Williams you ask? I covered Williams extensively a couple of weeks back, and under the old CBA salary cap rules that we're using for this calculation, it will actually cost the Cowboys $3.7M against the cap if they release Williams this year.

Overall, that salary cap space is much smaller than one would have believed, given the relatively high salaries involved. But the old CBA also had the June 1st provision to help out the capologists. If the same rule applies this year, the Cowboys could release all five players and the $26.5M cap hit could be spread out over two years, with $10.5M due in 2011 and $16.5M due in 2012.

By using the June 1st rule or an equivalent rule in the new CBA, the Cowboys could free up a total of $18.1M in cap space this year, with the downside of having another $16.5M of dead money counting against the 2012 cap.

But we can be sure that Stephen Jones already has a plan for that 2012 downside, and it will probably mean the end of Roy Williams and Andre Gurode in a Cowboys uniform. Releasing Williams after this season saves $2.3M in cap money, releasing Gurode in 2012 would free up $6.5 M in cap space for the 2012 season.

Surely there's a way within all these figures for Stephen Jones to find a way to re-sign the players he wants, sign all the rookies and sign some choice free agents. But it's not going to be that easy. And of course, everything could change with a new CBA and new salary cap rules.

Time for some salary cap wizardry, Stephen.

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