It can be difficult for the average fan (if there is such a thing) to wrap their minds around the NFL salary cap and all that it entails. I don't understand it completely myself but do understand a little bit of finance and balancing a checkbook. How hard can it be? Pay this guy X and that guy Y and so on . . . add it all up and make sure it's less than $120 million for the year. Simple enough really. But when you start to factor in what that money is paying for - and it's not for players - then the "equation" gets a little more foggy.
The salaries that are paid in the NFL are paid for one thing and one thing only - PRODUCTION! Demarcus Ware receives more per year than Victor Butler does; not because the Cowboys FO likes Ware more but because he produces more on the field. Nothing profound so far, I know, but lots of fans seem to forget that. I guarantee you that Jerry Jones does not as his bouts w/ several a player wrangling through negotiation is a constant reminder to him I'm sure.
Think back to Bobby Carpenter. As the 18th overall pick of the 2006 draft, Bobbie was able to finagle a 5 year deal that was $7 million guaranteed and could be up to as much as $11 million. Now, in today's terms, that seems like very little but in 2008-2009, it was crippling. Even though Bobby's development didn't come along as planned and he never really "earned" his money, he was still paid that amount. And the team essentially had to wait out the contract until he could be cut/traded without exceeding the cap as the remainder of the guaranteed money counts against that year's cap whenever a player is cut or traded. In other words, if Bobbie is still owed a guaranteed $4 million, when he is cut, that $4 million counts against the cap for the Boys even though he's no longer playing. Bobbie remains as an example for so many other players, regardless of draft round acquired or contract amount, that never live up to the price paid. Players often rework contract details and bonuses, but they almost NEVER give money back to the owner because of poor play.
Every team has approximately 15-20 players that fit into this category - overpaid by the owner. This includes rookies and veterans alike and Dallas is no different. Sometimes that overpayment is the owner/GM's fault (just simply signing a player to more $ than they should receive - Doug Free and Orlando Scandrick come to mind), is the player's fault (the player is paid a fair amount based upon past production and/or future potential but then underperforms due to complacency or lack of work ethic or displeasure with the current contract - Ryan Lief, Peyton Hillis or Lawrence Phillips anyone) or no one's fault (player is injured - Steven Emtman or Ki-Jana Carter).
Of course, the contrary is also true. Some players are underpaid or out-prodcue their salaries. Sean Lee and Dez Bryant have both proven to do so. But the cases of these players occur far less seldomly and whenever they do, there's usually an outcry from the player's agent (and sometimes the fans) to sign an extention and get the player more money.
That's quite a bad place to be as an owner - overpaying about a 1/3 of the team with another couple of players anxious to get more money.
So, the question of how a team can continue to remain a viable contender for the Superbowl and also pay it's players is the one question few teams can answer. Truth is, there really is no cookie-cutter formula. But, there are some aspects of players that should be looked for to minimize issue...
First and foremost, the team needs to acquire guys of high integrity. The kind of guy who keeps his word. The kind of guy who is honest. And the kind of guy who understand the word team and knows that team comes before self. Players of this nature tend to complain less (if at all) whenever they do outperform their contract. I think Dallas realizes this and is making it a significant part of it's player acquisition criteria.
Second, the front office needs to understand that turnover is part of the business. The front office personnel can be fans but business is business. "Falling in love" with certain players happens but it can't cloud judgment for fairness in negotiations. And, it's not wise to PAY for loyalty or past production - the reward players receive should be Championships. Additionally, whenever an elite player occupies a position, their backup is essential but will probably not get much playing time. That player may become frustrated and/or lose interest seeking more opportunity. It is not only good for the team to allow the player to leave/trade them, it's probably the best thing for that player as well. Laurent Robinson was a good example of this and I'm proud that the Boys didn't overspend trying to retain him. Had he been kept, the whole team would have suffered given the cap hit that would've been required and Robinson himself probably would have been less than satisfied being the #3 WR (behind two younger WRs). Sometimes, it's just the best thing to let a guy walk. And, over the course of one elite players career (10-14 years) that player may have 3-5 different backups; all of which need to be fairly inexpensive. If the GM is somewhat savvy, most if not all of the backups can be parlayed into higher draft picks than were used to acquire them (due to increased ability through coaching).
Third, and most important, is that each team must realize that having all-pro/elite players at each position isn't practical financially (and probably just not possible theoretically). While each team wants as much talent and production as possible, every time a player produces to a greater extent than their counterparts at the same position over a period of time, they will want more money. In all actuality, each team needs the correct balance of backups and special teams players (about 50% the team), average/solid starters (about 40% of the team) and a few elite/superstar players (about 10% or 4 to 5 guys). A balanced talent pool will result in balanced production and a balanced salary situation.
Finally, the key to each team's ability to contend for the Superbowl is how well they can evaluate and coach players in their 1st contract. Rookies and the like provide the greatest "bang for the buck" as their contracts are significantly cheaper. It is still possible to overpay a rookie, as in the case of Bobbie Carpenter. That is the main reason why drafting the best player available at a position of need is so instrumental and whenever a player projects to be elite (regardless of whether the team already has a average/solid player at that position), you DRAFT the elite potential. There are VERY few reasons to pass on an elite player.
The Cowboys look like their on the right track this year w/ their FA acquisitions. The draft will tell if their strategy is complete and they are building the franchise in the correct manner.