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Solving the Salary Cap Dilemma for The 2012 Dallas Cowboys

The 2012 Dallas Cowboys will have $12.6 million in Salary Cap room. This cap figure does not take into account the fact that the team can create additional salary cap relief, thus increasing their cap room up to roughly $20 or so million. By increasing their cap room, the Cowboys front office would have the flexibility needed to re-sign two of their own unrestricted free agents, as well as sign a few impact players available in the market, and sign their rookies.

After the jump, I will discuss the current salary cap dilemma and how the Cowboys front office should be able work with the salary cap in order to sign players via free agency.

THE IMPACT OF ANTHONY SPENCER AND LAURENT ROBINSON BEING UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Anthony Spencer and Laurent Robinson are two members of the 2011 club that Cowboys fans have been hotly debating. Both men will become unrestricted free agents when the 2012 League Year begins in early March.

The fan base is presently divided on whether or not Anthony Spencer should return and continue to be the starting LOLB in Rob Ryan's 3-4 defense; and should the club ultimately bring Spencer back, how much money will it/should it cost? The situation surrounding Anthony Spencer wasn't made any easier when the Cowboys made it public that they would consider using the Franchise Tag of $8.8 million on Anthony Spencer to retain his services for just the 2012 season, if both sides couldn't agree on a more reasonable long term deal.

Some fans are of the opinion that using the tag on Spencer would be ridiculous and a clear indication that Jerry Jones still loves to award thank you contracts to mediocre players. In their mind, because Anthony Spencer fails to achieve more than six quarterback sacks in any season, he shouldn't get a big contract. On the other side of the argument, the fans who support Anthony Spencer, along with the Dallas Cowboys, see Spencer as being an integral member of the team. Not only is his job to rush the passer he must also provide support against the run, and drop back into coverage against running backs and tight ends who run routes in the flat area. Moreover, when you judge Anthony Spencer against other 3-4 LOLBs, he rates in the top 5 in all statistical categories, despite not being the sack specialist that both LaMarr Woodley, and Clay Matthews have shown themselves to be.

Regardless of public opinion concerning Spencer the player, the Cowboys feel that bringing Spencer back enables them to follow their method of drafting the best player available, as opposed to stressing over the urgency to find his replacement early in the draft. At the same time, the Cowboys have also said that improving the pass rush is one of their plans for the upcoming season. If the franchise tag is applied to Spencer, Dallas will have hard time being able to sign any quality players in free agency and bring back Laurent Robinson.

Speaking of free agent wide receiver, the Cowboys will not have the option to apply the franchise tag to him. From my understanding, a special rule exists that prevents teams from applying the tag to a player who wasn't on their roster when the regular season began (between September 7th and 20th, the Cowboys would work out Robinson, release him after a hamstring injury, and then re-sign for the remainder of the season after the team had more injuries at the position). Once the 2012 year officially begins, Dallas risks losing Robinson to another club should they be unable to reach a deal which appeases both parties.This issue here, how much can you reasonably pay a number three wide receiver who had been let go by multiple teams in his young career prior to 2011? Before determining how much he should be paid, let's consider his career till now.

Prior to 2011, Laurent Robinson (the 75th pick of the 2007 NFL Draft) had spent time with the Atlanta Falcons (the team who drafted him) thru 2008; with the St. Louis Rams from 2009-2010; and most recently with the San Diego Chargers during Training Camp (in 2011). As a rookie, Robinson showed promise, he started in six of the fifteen games he played and had 37 receptions, 437 yards, and 1 Touchdown. In 2008, a hamstring injury limited his playing time, as he fell behind Harry Douglas (Rookie), and Brian Finneran (recovered from injury) on the depth chart. That season, Robinson only produced 5 catches for 52 yards. In April 2009, the Falcons traded Robinson to the Rams. That season, he lead the team with 13 receptions and 167 yards before being placed on IR after fracturing his fibula on September 28th. During the 2010 season, a healthy Robinson had 34 receptions, 344 yards and 2 Touchdowns. However, he was ultimately released in the off-season,and subsequently spent time with the Chargers during the 2011 training camp, before finding a possible home in Dallas during the 2011 season. Last year, in his short time with the Cowboys, Robinson demonstrated uncanny chemistry with Quarterback Tony Romo, as the two of them hooked up 53 times for over 800 yards and 11 touchdowns (led the team).

The Cowboys and their fans recognize he played an important role in the offense last year. Robinson recognizes that he had a great opportunity with the Cowboys, and has publicly stated he wants to re-sign with the team. It seems as though both parties want to get a deal done. Bringing Robinson back allows the team the piece of mind to not worry about filling the third wide receiver spot early in the draft, and thus concentrate their attention on picking this best available players. However, the Cowboys must be reasonable in the type of contract they offer Robinson, as they need to have money left over to sign free agents who can come in and provide a talent upgrade at several positions like interior offensive line, and the secondary.

PURSUING TALENT UPGRADES IN FREE AGENCY

If you've had the stomach to keep up with the team for the past few months, then it should come as no surprise that that the areas the team feels it needs to improve are the guards/centers, and defensive backs. Aside from upgrading the talent on the offensive line and in the secondary, the team also needs to find a back up QB, a veteran inside linebacker to help provide depth, and possibly another safety. The team has also stated that its current philosophy is to fill needs by signing free agents, and use the draft as a means to improve the overall talent of the team, by selecting the best player available (BPA). Obviously, a team's ability to just choose the best player is hamstrung when needs haven't been satisfied in free agency. The fans are split regarding the best strategy in free agency.

One group of fans suggests improving the pass rush by going out and pursuing potential free agents such as Houston Texans 3-4 OLB, Mario Williams, or Tennessee Titans DT, Jason Jones. The second group of fans thinks time would be better spent improving the secondary by signing a free agent CB such as Brandon Carr of the Kansas City Chiefs, Brent Grimes of the Atlanta Falcons, or Courtland Finnegan of the Tennessee Titans. The third group is of the opinion that the team must sign a free agent guard such as Carl Nicks of the New Orleans Saints, or a free agent center such as Scott Wells of the Green Bay Packers.

Regardless, of which player(s) the fans want to see, another debate ensues as to whether or not the Cowboys can afford to sign any of these guys, and if they are able to sign any of these players mentioned above, what does that do to the cap? Furthermore, is it even possible to sign any impact free agents, as well as bringing back both Anthony Spencer and Laurent Robinson?

THE DALLAS COWBOYS CAN BRING BACK SPENCER AND ROBINSON, AS WELL AS SIGN TWO IMPACT FREE AGENTS.

As stated above, the team's current salary cap room is $12.6 million. In order to bring back Anthony Spencer and Laurent Robinson, and become players in free agency, the Front Office has to be practical and bold.

In order to be practical, the team needs to realize that it cannot afford to keep Terence Newman, and that it must take advantage of the opportunity to restructure Doug Free's contract. It also means, the team accepts the fact that not every need can be adequately addressed through signing veteran free agents during the first wave of free agency. Along these lines, the team must find away to get Anthony Spencer and Laurent Robinson re-signed without taking a huge cap hit in 2012.

In order to be bold, the team needs to sign two impact free agents (a CB and interior OL) which will enable them to follow their best player available strategy, which achieves the result of improving the overall talent on the team, and adding to the depth of several positions. This also means signing two impact free agents while the 2012 cap doesn't take a huge cap it as well. Hey, if Stephen Jones can "work a miracle" last summer, why can't he do it now?

INCREASING THE SALARY CAP ROOM FROM $12.6 TO $22.6 MILLION

1) The Cowboys release Terence Newman on March 13th, saving $6million under the 2012 salary cap. Should Terence Newman remain on the roster beyond June 1st, the team is on the hook for $8million against their 2012 salary cap. By designating Terence Newman as a "June 1st cap casualty" they Cowboys can save $6million dollars; this can be achieved by simply waiting to release him until March 13th. If they release him prior to March 13th, the team only saves $4million. Problem solved, Terence Newman, thank you for your time, we loved having you here, but "all good things must come to an end."As of March 13th, 2012, Terence Newman will be released with the "June 1st" cap casualty distinction. New Cap figure: $18.6million.

2) The Cowboys restructure Doug Free's contract and save $4 million under the 2012 salary cap. Restructuring a contract is beneficial to both the player and the organization. The organization loves it because they can reduce the cap hit by converting a portion of the salary that has yet to be earned into a present signing bonus, add on extra years to the contract, spread out the cost of that bonus, and reduce the total cap figure. The player loves this because this is deemed "check day" according to Marcellus Wiley; as the team cuts a check immediately for the portion of the money being accelerated. As my sports law professor told me, the more guaranteed money a player gets in the present, the better, even if the future money is less. As we all know, NFL contracts are barely worth the paper they're printed on.

a) Doug Free's Contract: According to the numbers from "spotrac.com" Doug Free's current contract was 4 years $32 million with a $10.3 signing bonus. In 2011, his base salary was $700k, and his signing bonus prorated was $2.06 million, for a total cap hit of $2.76 million. If the team doesn't restructure his contract, his cap hit his as follows: 2012 $8.06 million ($6m base +$2.06 prorated bonus); 2013 $9.06 million ($7m base + $2.06); 2014 $10.06 million ($8m base + $2.06 ); 2015 UFA.

The unpaid amount under the current deal is $21 million. By restructuring the deal, I convert $7million into a signing bonus for Mr. Free, and tack on two more years onto the contract; now he'll become a free agent in 2017. The contract now becomes 5yrs/$21 ($7m guaranteed +$14m yet to be earned). The cap hit is as follows: 2012 $4.06 million ($2.06m original bonus + $1m new bonus +$ 1m base salary); 2013 $5.06 million ($2.06m +$1m+$2m base); 2014 $6.06million ($2.06m+$1m+$3m base); 2015 $5million ($1m+$4m base); 2016 $5million ($1m+$4m base); 2017 UFA. However, for the years 2017 and 2018, the team will carry $1m in dead money towards the cap for the remainder of that $7million bonus given to Free in 2012. Cap Savings: $4 million. New 2012 Salary Cap Figure: $22.6 million

Note: There's not a whole lot of public information regarding the yearly break down of Orlando Scandrick's contract. According to rotoworld, all it says back in July he signed a 6 year contract worth $28 million with $10 million guaranteed. According to spotrac, they only give us the cap figure for last season and 2012. In 2012, his base salary will be $4.7 million + $3 million for his signing bonus, making his cap figure $7.7 million. Because I don't have the total break down of Scandrick's deal, I don't know what a realistic restructuring would look like, so for the rest of this exercise, let's just assume Scandrick's contract cannot be restructured. Under this scenario, Cowboys still have $22.6 million to play with when it comes to free agency.

BREAKING NEWS: THE DALLAS COWBOYS RE-SIGN ANTHONY SPENCER TO A 5 YEAR DEAL WORTH $47 MILLION

Before any of you Anthony Spencer haters (Archie, KD, Creasey, et al) try to occupy my house and get me committed to a mental institution, please look at how the contract would break down. The Ahmad Brooks contract played a role in the way I structured the deal. Brooks might have similar numbers to Spencer, in less playing time, but according various advanced stats, Spencer grades out as one of the top 3-4 LOLBs in this free agency class, and over the last few seasons (whether or not you disagree with that sentiment). As you'll see below, Spencer's cap hit doesn't go above the current franchise tag figure $8.8 million until the 2014 season.

1) Guaranteed Money ($17 million):

a) $13 million signing bonus (SB) to paid within 10 days of signing the contract, pro-rated as a $2.6 million cap hit annually.

b) $4million second year option bonus (SYOB) to paid within 10 days of the start of the 2013 season, pro-rated as $1million cap hit each year starting 2013.

2) Annual Break Down

-2012 Cap hit is $5.1 million [$2.5 million (Base Salary) + $2.6 million (SB)]

-2013 Cap hit is $7.1 million [$3.5 million (Base Salary) +$2.6 million (SB) + $1 million (SYOB)]

-2014 Cap hit is $9.6 million [$6 million (Base Salary) + $2.6 million (SB) + $1 million (SYOB)]

-2015 Cap hit is $11.6 million [$8 million (Base Salary) + $2.6 million (SB) + $1 million (SYOB)]

-2016 Cap hit is $13.6 million [$10 million (Base Salary) + $2.6 million (SB) + $1 million (SYOB)]

3) Bonuses and Incentives that would increase Anthony Spencer's salary

a) $2 million roster bonus paid in any season within the final two years (2015 and 2016) where Spencer is on the opening day roster.

b) $1million incentive paid in any season where Spencer plays at least 14 games, while registering at least 8 sacks; and his sack total accounts for a minimum of 20% of the team's total sacks.

c) $1million incentive paid in any season where Spencer plays at least 14 games, and 80% of the defensive snaps, and the Cowboys get 40 or more sacks, and Spencer's accounted for 20% of the team's sack total.

According to my Sports Law Professor, these types of bonuses and incentives according to industry experts are termed "Not Likely to Be Earned" as the player will most likely be cut before roster bonus comes due, and/or the player is not really likely to achieve the stats necessary to trigger the salary escalator. However, the player and his agent love these numbers being included in their contract because it gives them an opportunity to claim they got a great deal should he actually earn all those incentives. Only the agents and gm's know the player won't see the life of that contract. In this case, Spencer will puff his chest and proclaim he got a 6 year deal worth $51 million (if all he does is stay on the team through 2016 and doesn't earn any of the other incentives). Chances are Spencer won't be on the team beyond 2014, and if that's the case, then the Cowboys cap hit for 2015 and 2016 are reduced significantly to just the dead money (the prorated SB and prorated SYOB). In order for Spencer to remain with the team for the life of this deal, he'd have to play out of his mind like DeMarcus Ware.

Regardless of how many years Anthony Spencer sees of his new contract, the Cowboys have still have $17.5 million to play with.

BREAKING NEWS: THE DALLAS COWBOYS RE-SIGN LAURENT ROBINSON TO 6 YEARS $27 MILLION

I'm guessing, Laurent Robinson's agent will use the Lance Moore contract (signed last summer 5 years $20 million) as a barometer for determining what his client should get. In my estimation, if Laurent Robinson receives a contract that is worth $500k "Moore" per season than Lance's contract (see what I did there), this is win win for both sides. Below is the salary cap math.

1) Guaranteed Money ($7 million)

a) A $3 million signing bonus (SB) to be paid within ten days of signing the contract, and prorated as $500k salary cap hit annually.

b) Guaranteeing the first two years of Robinson's contract (2012: $3million base salary, 2013: $4million base salary).

2) Annual Break Down

-2012 Cap Hit is $3.5 million [$3 million (Base Salary) + $500k (SB)]

-2013 Cap Hit is $4.5 million [$4 million (Base Salary) + $500k (SB)]

-2014 Cap Hit is $4.75 million [$2.5 million (Base Salary) + $250k work out bonus +$1.5 million roster bonus + $500k (SB)]

-2015 Cap Hit is $4.75 million [$3 million (Base Salary) + $250k work out bonus + $1 million roster bonus + $500k (SB)]

-2016 Cap Hit is $5.75 million [$3.5 million (Base Salary) + $250k work out bonus + $1.5 million roster bonus + $500k (SB)]

-2017 Cap Hit is 3.75 million [$1.5 million (Base Salary) + $250k work out bonus + $1.5 million roster bonus + $500k (SB)]

The work out bonuses are used as an incentive for Laurent Robinson to work out with the team at the "voluntary workouts" during the off season. He would be eligible to receive these annual bonuses for years three through six of the contract. Under the contract package, he would also receive potential incentives such as $500k paid any season where he leads the team in third down receptions, receiving yards, or touchdown receptions.

The Cowboys now have $14 million dollars to spend on other team's potential free agents.

BREAKING NEWS: THE DALLAS COWBOYS SIGN FREE AGENT CB, BRANDON CARR 6 YEARS $42 MILLION

I based this contract off of the one Johnathan Joseph received last summer, it contains less money overall, but it still puts Brandon Carr in the same ball park of guaranteed money, only $2 million less. The salary cap math is below.

1) Guaranteed Money ($21 million)

a) A $9million signing bonus (SB) paid within 10 days of signing the contract, and prorated as annual salary cap hit of $1.5 million.

b) Guaranteeing the first three seasons of Carr's contract (2012: $3million base salary, 2013: $4 million base salary, 2014: $5 million base salary).

2) Annual Break Down

-2012 Cap Hit is $4.5 million: [$3 million (Base Salary) + $1.5 million (SB)]

-2013 Cap Hit is $5.5 million: [$4 million (Base Salary) + $1.5 million (SB)]

-2014 Cap Hit is $6.5 million: [$5 million (Base Salary) + $1.5 million (SB)]

-2015 Cap Hit is $3.5 million: [$2 million (Base Salary) + $1.5 million (SB)]

-2016 Cap Hit is $9.5 million: [$3 million (Base Salary) + $6million roster bonus + $1.5 million (SB)]

-2017 Cap Hit is $12.5 million: [$4 million (Base Salary) + $7million roster bonus +$1.5 million (SB)]

The beauty of this deal, Dallas only has to pay $9 million upfront, and the 26 year old Carr is guaranteed to receive $21 million total for the first three seasons of wearing the star on his helmet. Dallas is also protected financially as their two biggest cap hits under the contract occur in the seasons where Brandon Carr will be 31 and 32. Chances are, he will not see the end of this deal, much like Terence Newman will not see the last two years of his current contract. There is potential for Carr's salary to increase based on performance incentives such as $1million paid in any season where he leads the league in Defensive QB Rating.

Dallas now has $9.5 million left to spend in free agency.

BREAKING NEWS: THE DALLAS COWBOYS SIGN FREE AGENT C, SCOTT WELLS 6 YEARS $38.2 MILLION

I know what you're thinking, why are we signing a 31 year old center instead of 27 year old guard like Carl Nicks? I was debating between these two guys, however, I feel in free agency, the team needs to go out an sign a Pro Bowl caliber center who can come in and stabilize the interior of the offensive line, something I don't think David Arkin, Phil Costa, Kevin Kowalski, or a 2012 rookie can come in and do right away. The center is the QB's best friend, as his job is to call out the protection scheme, and adjustments on each particular play (unless we're talking about Andre Gurode).

Also, as you'll see below, I'm basing Scott Wells' contract off of the one Jeff Faine signed back in 2008, which contains $15 million guaranteed and heavily back loaded so once a younger center whose ready to take over, the team can get out of the contract; however, unlike Faine's contract, Wells' cap hit doesn't reach $7 million until his fourth year with the team. Wells has been very durable since being a starter in Green Bay, only missing one game. Additionally, he brings championship experience to the team, something this team needs. It never hurts to poach a good player from a conference rival. Furthermore, I chose to sign Scott Wells since we'll have a much easier time signing him as opposed to Chris Myers, whom the Packers are courting. Below is the salary cap math.

1) Guaranteed Money ($15 million)

a) A $12 million signing bonus (SB) to be paid within ten days of signing the contract, and prorated as an annual salary cap hit of $2 million.

b) A $3 million second year option bonus (SYOB) to be paid within ten days of the start of the 2013 league year, and prorated as an annual salary cap hit of $600k.

2) Annual Break Down

-2012 Salary Cap Hit is $3 million: [$1 million (Base Salary) + $2 million (SB)]

-2013 Salary Cap Hit is $3.6 million: [$1 million (Base Salary) + $2 million (SB) + $600k (SYOB)]

-2014 Salary Cap Hit is $5 million: [$2.4 million (Base Salary)+ $2 million (SB) + $600k (SYOB)]

-2015 Salary Cap Hit is $7.6 million: [$5 million (Base Salary)+ $2 million (SB) + $600k (SYOB)]

-2016 Salary Cap Hit is $9 million: [$6.4 million (Base Salary) + $2 million (SB) +$600k (SYOB)]

-2017 Salary Cap Hit is $10 million: [$7.4 million (Base Salary) +$2 million (SB) +$600k (SYOB)]

As you can see this is a very flexible contract for the Cowboys front office to work with, and it gives Wells a nice $15 million in guaranteed money to put in the bank. I think he and his agent would consider this a substantial pay raise over the 5 year deal he previously had with the Packers.

AT THE END OF THE DAY, THE COWBOYS STILL HAVE $6.5 MILLION IN SALARY CAP SPACE FOR 2012

The important thing to take away from my signings, the Cowboys now $6.5 million left in cap space to sign their 2012 rookies, and go out and sign some additional players who hit the secondary free agent market in the summer, and right before the season starts. The name of the game is salary cap flexibility. Under my practical and bold philosophy, Dallas was able to achieve their initial plan of bringing back two key players from the 2011 team, and upgrade a few weak positions on the team, secondary and interior offensive line; thus allowing the club to feel comfortable following the best player available approach in the 2012 draft.

The only question left to ask, will Jerry Jones "have a good time?" (the comedy begins at the 2:36 mark).

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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