One of the things that Jerry does that really bothers me is give big contracts to players near or over 30. We saw it with Terrence Newman (to cite a particularly bad example). For reasons that I will cite in a moment, I sure hope we don't resign Spencer, unless it's for a couple of years and there is little guaranteed money. Otherwise, I think we will pay for another player who is not on our roster. Just as I fear we're going to do with Jay Ratliff, Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Witten.
For those who don't remember the Newman details, let me remind you. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2007, at the age of 29, and Jerry Jones lavished a $50.1MM extension on him, $22MM of which was guaranteed. He was a shell of himself by 2011 and the Cowboys released him after that season.
Oh, and he is taking $2M in cap money THIS YEAR. $2MM doesn't sound like that much until you remember that they owe another older defensive back who is not on the team $2.4MM. Hello, Gerald Sensabaugh. With the Newman money and the money they have to allocate to Sensabaugh, the Cowboys could have signed a legit stop gap offensive tackle. Just to put the problem in perspective. And then they would have had LOTS of leverage with Free, most likely reducing their cap hit on him and either keeping him at a greatly reduced dollar amount or waiving his unproductive self. Oh, but they don't have that leverage because of contracts given two old-in-football-years defensive backs.
I HOPE Ratliff bounces back and is a beast in Monte Kiffin's defense. But Ratliff only played six games last year. And he'll be 32 when the season starts. And he's got over $10MM in signing bonuses due him over the next five years, at which time he'll be 37. And he hasn't had six sacks since 2009.
But why is is his age a big deal? Well, in 2012, 175 players were on NFL rosters -- for at least a game -- as defensive tackles. Of those, only 13 were as old or older than Ratliff will be this year. That's 7.5 percent of all DEs. And those players averaged less than 10 starts each.
What about next year, when Ratliff will be 33? Well, the Cowboys will owe Ratliff about $7MM in deferred cap bonus. But his salary in 2014 will jump from $1.34MM to $5.5MM and his cap number will double. But wait, you're thinking, Steven Jones will work his magic and restructure Ratliff's contract, right? Well, yes, I'm afraid that may well be true. The problem is that in the NFL there aren't a lot of highly productive defensive tackles who are 33 or older. Again, in 2012, of the 175 players who were on an NFL roster as a defensive tackle, a mere 7 were as old as Ratliff will be when the 2014 seasons rolls around. That means for every 25 tackles on NFL rosters, 1 will be 33 or older.
Now maybe the switch to the 4-3 will help him. Maybe he will play injury free the next two years, but the odds are against him.
And it doesn't end with Ratliff. DeMarcus Ware will be 31 when the seasons starts. Last year, he was a shell of himself the second half of the year, due to injuries. Props to him for playing through injuries. No one can find fault him for that. And he's arguably been the best defensive player in the NFL for many years now.
But of the 187 players who were on an NFL roster as a defensive end in 2012, only 34 were as old as Ware will be this year. Those 34 started an average of just 8.7 games. But most of us should feel good about this year. After all, Ware is a beast and will defy the gods of time. But next year? Well only 14 of 187 DEs were as old or older than Ware will be in 2014. Those 14 started just half their games. Two years from now, when Ware will be just 33, only 9 of the 187 were as old as DeMarcus Ware will be on opening day 2015. And their starts as a group declined from an average 8 to 6.9 per player.
Get the picture? We're not playing with house money here.
In 2014, the Cowboys will owe Ware in deferred bonus money about $8.7MM. However, his salary balloons to over $12MM and his cap hit for keeping him will balloon to $16MM, double what it will be this year. Maybe he'll be asked to take a pay-cut. More likely, Jones will restructure Ware. Designating him as a June 1 cut next year would mean a $4.45MM cap hit next year and the following year. And 2016, forget about it. In 2012, only 3 players were that old and two of them had but one start between them. If anyone can defy father time, it's DeMarcus Ware. So I hope I'm totally wrong here, but you get the picture.
And that brings us to another future Hall of Famer, Jason Witten. Witten bounced back from a lacerated spleen to have a monster year in 2012. Well, of the 131 TEs who were on an NFL roster for at least one game in 2012, only 13 were as old as Witten will be this year. And they started just 5.5 games on average last year. And next year, those numbers would have dropped to 11 players and the year after, just seven. And games started will fall to 4.5 when Witten will be 33 years old.
The problem is compounded when you see that Witten's salary will go to $5MM in 2014 and his cap number will double (sound familiar?). The Cowboys will owe Witten a well-deserved $8.6MM in deferred bonus dollars that year. If Escobar and Hannah show promise, then the Cowboys can maybe ask Witten to take a haircut to free up cap space. And at least the Cowboys this time could be in a position of strength if Hannah and Escobar look like they can product similar levels of production. Otherwise, 2014 could be another restructuring and another year of kicking the can down the road.
Now, if there is one guy who can defy age, it just might be Witten. And I hope he has 5 more years of 90 plus catches and my whole argument becomes laughable. But he'll definitely be that rare exception, something he has already been.
And that brings us to the granddaddy of them all, Tony Romo. Tony will be 33 next year. And at least the Cowboys spent a first rounder on an interior lineman. So maybe he won't get killed. And a good thing. He's no young whipper snapper. There were 88 QBs on an NFL roster in 2012 and only 7 of those were as old as Tony will be to start the year. They started less than half their games. If you look at QBs who were 35 in 2012, you're down to 4 players. Two of them are generational players, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. The other two, not so much, Charlie Batch and Matt Hasselbeck, who started just 7 games between them. Of course, the Cowboys will still owe Romo about $20mm in deferred bonus, which will count again the cap one way or another.
If Romo defies the odds in 2014, no one will care. And we actually need to pray that he does defy time since we will almost certainly be looking at some dark, hopeless days trying to find his replacement. If we cut him when he's 36, will still have a $10.6MM cap obligation.
So let's play GM for a minute and look at things holistically. In 2014. First of all, the top eight players in 2014 will count $91M against the cap. And that doesn't include dollars for retaining Anthony Spencer or Jason Hatcher, who will be another thirty-something defensive lineman that year. It also doesn't take into account resigning any of their own younger players, like Dez Bryant who will be a Free Agent after the 2014 season or Sean Lee who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2013. And just to put that bloated $91MM cap money into perspective, it is just $58MM this year for the top eight players. That's $33MM without Spencer or Hatcher on your team and probably without Sean Lee.
Now included in those numbers for 2014 are $11MM to Doug Free and $5.6MM to Orlando Scandrick. It's hard to believe Scandrick will receive that kind of money in 2013 and I'm not sure Doug Free will be with the Cowboys after June 1 unless he agrees to a much lower salary, realistically in the $2mm/year range, at the most. So maybe the cap hit in 2014 is more like $20MM above what it is for the top eight players this year. Still, it's hard not to see some restructuring and more kicking the can down the road.
Anthony Spencer could very well be gone after 2013. In fact, I hope he is. If they franchise him, he's at $15MM. If they resign him -- and after looking at the effects of age on DEs, I hope they don't -- they'll have another guy who is 30 with long term cap obligations. Of course, Hatcher, will be 32 to start 2014 and will also be a free agent after this year. And then you will have Ratliff and Ware who will be trying to defy father time for the second year in a row. (Boy, do we ever need Tyrone Crawford to step up sooner rather than later).
At tight end, I think the Cowboys have planned ahead and I hope they don't have to. I hope the two and three TE sets drive NFL defensive coordinators crazy. But even if Witten slows down, there is at least the possibility of plugging Hannah and Escobar in.
QB? It's Tony or baloney, I'm afraid.
It would be different if the Cowboys were a Super Bowl contender. I can see mortgaging the future a little. Yes, I think they have a chance to be better this year. Maybe even win their division. Surely, they won't be ravaged by injuries the way they were last year, will they? But are they really going to be better than the 49ers or the Seahawks? Time will tell, but I don't see it right now. They are counting on a lot of guys in their 30s to have great seasons and they really have to have some combination of Frederick and continuity provide major improvements in pass protection. That offensive line also has to give the Cowboys something they didn't have last year: a legitimate running game, especially in the red zone and in short yardage situations.
Of course, they need their collection of safeties to solidify the secondary. They need Carter and Lee to come back strong and stay healthy. they need more of their 2012 draft class to step up and provide quality depth and another starter. And they need several guys from 2013 to not just make the team put become significant contributors as rotation guys and special teams players.
That's a lot to ask. Boy, do I hope I'm wrong, though.