There is widely held belief in the sports world that players in their final contract-year often perform above their career averages, as they work extra hard to reach the dangling carrot of a megabucks contract if they can show that they can be "The Guy". With the money available in free agency these days, a good free agent contract can set a player's family up for generations. The promise of instant financial security can be a powerful motivator.
But the contract year phenomenon isn't as prominent in the NFL as it is in other sports. Most NFL players, especially those still on their rookie contracts, already have a powerful motivator built into their contract: little to nothing of the money in their contracts is guaranteed. If they don't show up and perform every day, they'll never reach free agency anyway.
The Cowboys currently have 15 players on the roster whose contracts expire after the end of this season, and who would qualify to be some kind of free agent depending on what type of free agency rules a new CBA will bring. Which places the Cowboys in somewhat of an awkward financial position: extend those players now and hope to get a great performance on the cheap, or wait until those players break out before re-signing them and risk overpaying in the process?
Arguably the most prominent Cowboys player in his contract year is Anthony Spencer. The 2007 first round pick has never quite had the breakthrough in Dallas that everyone had hoped for. As a starter opposite DeMarcus Ware he recorded 6 sacks in 2009 and 5 sacks in 2010. But perhaps more telling for his level of overall play are the number of QB pressures: Spencer's QB pressures as per the Cowboys season stats based on coaching film declined from 33 in 2009 to 14 in 2010.
Spencer's play, like that of most of the defense, took a step in the wrong direction last year. 2011 is Spencer's contract year. If he does not reach at least his 2009 performance level, he'll most likely be gone and the Cowboys will be looking to replace him.
From a contractual point of view, the situation provides both a risk and an opportunity for the Cowboys.
They could try to extend his contract now, while they are still dealing with "Almost Anthony", a guy who showed a lot of promise but never quite delivered. But that assumes that the Cowboys still believe he'll become the pass rushing threat they drafted him to be.
Or they could wait and see. If Spencer turns into a true bookend for DeMarcus Ware, they could re-sign him to a big-money contract, if not, they can let him test free agency. The downside here is that this is not a cap-friendly solution, and there's no guarantee that Almost Anthony will not be back for an extended stay in the 2012 season.
The same holds true for three draft picks from 2008 (Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice and Orlando Scandrick), 2009 UDFA Kevin Ogletree and TE Martin Rucker (though perhaps to a lesser extent). All of these players are scheduled to be free agents in 2012. Out of this group, Ogletree is a Restricted Free Agent (RFA), meaning he will have three accrued seasons, but his free agency is subject to certain "restrictions" the Cowboys can place on him.
A second group of free agents is made up of Mat McBriar and Montrae Holland. They'll both also be free agents in 2012, but their situation is slightly different, as they'll be looking for their third contracts.
The third group of potential free agents are seven players who have all been floating between the practice squad and the 53-man roster.All of them are Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA), meaning they have no more than two accrued seasons in the NFL and unless the are released, they may only sign with the Cowboy, provided of course, that the Cowboys extend a minimum qualifying offer to the player.
|Player||2011 Base Salary||Status 2012|
|Anthony Spencer||1,001,000||Free Agent|
|Martellus Bennett||555,000||Free Agent|
|Tashard Choice||555,000||Free Agent|
|Orlando Scandrick||555,000||Free Agent|
|Martin Rucker||555,000||Free Agent|
|Kevin Ogletree||480,000||Restricted free agent|
|Mat McBriar||1,700,000||Free Agent|
|Montrae Holland||1,000,000||Free Agent|
|Manuel Johnson||405,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
|Lonyae Miller||405,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
|Jermey Parnell||405,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
|Andrew Sendejo||405,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
|Jesse Holley||385,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
|Bryan McCann||385,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
|Teddy Williams||330,000||Exclusive rights free agent|
Looking over this list, are there players you would like to see the Cowboys extend early? And where would you adopt a wait-and-see approach, even it could mean shelling out big bucks next year?
Doug Free, with one good season at left tackle, will want to be paid like a top ten tackle this year. Imagine if every one of the above free agents has a breakout year in 2011. Will the Cowboys give them an extension based on their 2011 play – which they’ll be asking for – or a contract based on the rather less spectacular early years of their contract?
At the end of the day this is an issue that goes all the way back to the Cowboys' seeming inability to develop talent quickly.