Now that the Cowboys have signed Tony Romo for life, at the market value of a cool $108 million, so-called cap wonks have been coming out of the woodwork to decry Dallas management of the salary cap. In particular, they have issued a dire warning that the Cowboys tendency to restructure contracts, thus deferring present costs into future years, will eventually catch up with them, to the point where they will have too much dead money on the books to be able to operate. The result, these pundits imply, will be a return to the Dave Campo years.
Now, I'm not a proponent of restructuring contracts, and I have never thought that this was the optimal way to do business. In the 90s, the Cowboys did this in an effort to keep their dynasty intact. Since 2010, however, I think they have done so to get out from underneath the tonnage of bloated contracts they jettisoned in the 2011 offseason, when they released veterans Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Marion Barber, Roy E. WIlliams, and Terence Newman (the former corner will cost the team 2 million on the 2013 cap!). In the intervening years, they have gotten younger (and thus cheaper) players to replace them. To manage the cap hits from those releases (and those of players like Ken Hamlin), however, they have had to defer money to future years.
Will this catch up to them? Let's take a look. Back in mid-February, before the recent spate of restructures, it was pointed out that Dallas' top ten 2013 salaries would cost the team roughly 90 million dollars. Two of those contracts belonged to Dan Connor and Gerald Sensabaugh, who were summarily dismissed. Others, including those of DeMarcus Ware and Brandon Carr, were restructured. And, as we know, Tony Romo's was extended (note: Anthony Spencer's franchise tag contract wold have made the list, but this conversation happened prior to his being tagged). Whew, that was a lot of finagling!
In 2014, the situation actually appears to be worse. The top ten contracts next season figure to total about 100 million dollars. Let's look at them in a bit more detail, with a consideration of possible cap relief (green represents cap savings; red equals accelerated cap hit in 2014):
|Player||2014 Base Salary||Signing Bonus||Other Bonus||2014 Cap Figure||2014 Cap Savings
There's not a lot of savings to be had - and there's not much further down the cap-hit roster, either. The next ten highest paid players will be, in order, Kyle Orton (just restructured, so not cost effective); Tyron Smith (rookie contract); Mackenzy Bernadeau (restructured); Dez Bryant (rookie contract); Jermey Parnell (final year; 1.5 million savings); Phil Costa (final year; 1.5 million savings); Bruce Carter (rookie deal); Barry Church (no savings, as signing bones equals cap hit), Justin Durant (final year; save 1.25 million) and Sean Lissemore (200,000 savings).
To get under the cap in 2014, the Cowboys will have to restructure and dump some salaries yet again. The obvious contracts to eliminate are Free, Ratliff and Livings. It looks like both Costa and Parnell will have to establish themselves as starters or key (and I mean key) backups to stay on the roster. And Justin Durant will not only have to start but play at a very high level in order to outperform his cap savings.
One of the useful aspects of this exercise is that it offers us some insight into which positions the Cowboys will need to draft in order to replace these bad contracts. Taking a look at the the above list, we see OT, DT, OLB and interior line positions. Curiously, these are exactly the positions that we've been assuming the team would target in April (and it suggests that the Cowboys have a horrifying combination of low talent and bad contracts at those positions). We currently know of eleven players who have a pre-draft visit scheduled at Valley Ranch; the list includes two OTs (Terron Armstead and D.J. Fluker); an offensive guard (Chance Warmack), a DT (Bennie Logan) and an OLB (Sean Porter).
It also includes WR Terrance WIlliams. What gives? Sure, the team could be looking for a third receiver, as their pursuit of Josh Gordon in last year's supplemental draft suggests. To fully understand their interest in these two Baylor wideouts, however, we need to jump ahead, to 2015, when the Cowboys will be able to free up a lot of space by cutting the likes of Scandrick and Austin and (gulp) perhaps Witten and/ or Ware. Given the unlikelihood that they can afford to re-sign Spencer to a long-term deal, that would put DE as a screaming need, and indicates that both WR and TE need to be on the priority list.
In short, when trying to divine a team's drafting plans, its critical to "follow the money." If we look at the contracts that the team needs to get off the books, we see not only the already-prioritized positions, but others, such as CB, TE and WR, that might not ostensibly be immediate needs, but that emerge as such once we understand that need is often driven by finances as much as it is by a dearth of talent. So, if the Cowboys spend an early pick on Baylor's Williams, don't pull out your hair and gnash your teeth, bemoaning the fact that they passed on an O-lineman. Well, you can do that - but temper it with the knowledge that the front office is operating with a bit of financial foresight, getting a replacement for Miles Austin early enough so that he'll be ready when they have to unload number 19's bloated contract after the 2014 campaign in what we should all hope is an attempt at restoring a modicum of financial sanity to their cap situation.