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Hey Big Spender: Are the Dallas Cowboys Fiscally Conservative?

I recently set out to understand how certain positions are valued more than others on a football team. While it's pretty obvious, at least to me, that a quarterback is more important than a punter, I wasn't sure that the difference between a safety and a tight end is so clear cut.

One of the easiest ways to measure the value of a given commodity is to look at the price that commodity commands, in this case, how much money the players at a given position make. I used the USAToday salary database and looked at the average 2009 cap value of the top ten players' contracts at each position.

Cap Value of top 10 players, in $ m, 2009
$14.6 $10.3 $9.2 $8.7 $8.2 $8.0 $7.2 $6.6 $6.1 $5.3

Granted, the way the data is split in the database doesn't account for differences between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, nor does it allow a split by position on the offensive line, but overall these numbers feel about right. I'm a bit surprised that safeties rank that far behind cornerbacks, but what do I know.

I used the cap numbers instead of the actual salary, as the prorated cap number is a better reflection of the contract of an individual player. Already confused? To quote BTB's own Raul Villaronga, NFL salaries "with all of the legal terminology and cross-references to sections, items and subsections, could put grown men into the fetal position for an extended period of time." Brush up on your capology skills in Raul's excellent article on DeMarcus Ware's new contract.

But I can do simple math, and using the ten fingers of both hands I manually counted how many players on each NFL team were getting top ten money. The results were not what I expected at all.

Top ten money

At the very bottom of this post you'll find the top ten players by cap value for each position. The average of these cap values are the numbers you'll find at the top of the post. But before looking at which teams were dishing out top ten money last season, I had to adjust the observed universe of players somewhat.

In the USAToday database, five players per team (LT, LG, C, RG, RT) are bunched under the OL heading and, depending on your scheme, there are three to four linebackers per team that go into the LB figure. To adjust for this, I looked at the top 30 OL players and top 20 LB's and kept all other positions at 10 players for a total of 130 players.

Care to take a guess how many Cowboys players last year were making top ten money? Do you think big-spending Jerry Jones will once again be at the top of the class?

In 2009, the Cowboys had only two players on their roster making top ten money at their position. Jason Witten and the recently released Ken Hamlin. Now, we need to take into account that the USAToday data is only valid through Oct. 25, 2009. Some contracts completed before that date (like Demarcus Ware's) are not yet included.

Here's an abbreviated overview of which teams were paying how many players top ten money in 2009:

Top ten money by team, 2009
"Big Spenders"
"Fiscal conservatives"
Rank Team No. of players 09 Cap Salary Rank Team No. of players 09 Cap Salary
1 Vikings 8 $59.3 23 Texans 3 $23.8
2 Jets 8 $56.5 24 Buccaneers 3 $23.1
3 Colts 6 $58.1 25 Seahawks 3 $22.4
4 Giants 6 $46.9 26 Jaguars 3 $19.4
5 Steelers 6 $42.0 27 Falcons 3 $19.1
6 Eagles 5 $53.2 28 Ravens 3 $17.8
7 49ers 5 $41.0 29 Saints 2 $21.5
8 Chargers 5 $41.0 30 Bills 2 $14.2
9 Cardinals 5 $38.8 31 Cowboys 2 $10.5
10 Packers 5 $34.2 32 Chiefs 1 $15.2

I never thought I'd read, much less write, an article that put the Cowboys under the heading of 'financially conservative', but here we are. Sure, the Cowboys paid some pretty big salaries in 2009, largely due to some hefty bonuses (Roy Williams $ 10.0 m, Marc Colombo $8.0 m, Igor Olshansky $6.0 m), but in terms of cap salary, none of these players make the top ten at their position. Is this yet another aspect of team operations where we're seeing a little more of Stephen Jones and slightly less of Jerry Jones?

In 2009, the final capped year under the current CBA, the cap was $128 million per team. The likes of the Vikings, Jets, Colts and Eagles were betting almost half their cap money on a few select players. Now, all four of those teams made the playoffs, so there's no arguing with that strategy. Conversely, the Saints, Cowboys and Ravens also had successful seasons with a much more fiscally conservative approach.

You do not need a degree in portfolio theory to tell that some of the big spenders are not diversifying their risks very well, and are always just an injury or two away from a disaster. Then again, that probably applies to any team and any key position in football.


The low number of top ten salaries is something that we've already seen in 2008, where there were also only two players on the roster being paid top ten money, Jason Witten and Roy Williams the safety. The Cowboys had higher numbers in all of their previous eight years, as the table below shows. Are 2008 and 2009 the start of a new trend?

Number of Cowboys with Top Ten cap salaries per year
Year 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000
Number 2 5 4 5* 6 6 5 3 5
Players Jason Witten, Roy Williams (S) T.O., Jason Witten, Flozell Adams, Anthony Henry,  Roy Williams (S) T.O., Flozell Adams, Roy Williams (S), Abram Elam
Larry Allen, Flozell Adams, La'Roi Glover, Terence Newman, Anthony Henry
Dan Campbell, Larry Allen, Flozell Adams, Dexter Coakley, La'Roi Glover, Darren Woodson Joey Galloway, Larry Allen, Dexter Coakley, La'Roi Glover, Greg Ellis, Darren Woodson Emmitt Smith, Rocket Ismail, Larry Allen, Flozell Adams, Darren Woodson Emmitt Smith, Larry Allen, Darren Woodson Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Erik Williams, Leon Lett, Darren Woodson

*Newman & Henry were ranked 11th and 12th in cap salary in 2005

The Cowboys in 2010

Top 10 Estimated cap salaries, '10 & '11
Player  10 Cap salary
 11 Cap salary
Tony Romo $10.9 $11.4
DeMarcus Ware $11.8 $11.2
  Terence Newman 
$11.0 $10.0
Leonard Davis $8.4 $9.4
Andre Gurode $4.7 $7.2
Roy Williams $15.0 $7.1
Marion Barber $5.9 $6.3
Jason Witten $5.3 $6.1
Jay Ratliff $3.7 $5.4
Bradie James $4.6 $5.1

Were 2008 and 2009 odd years for the Cowboys, or will the Cowboys revert to old habits and pay more players top ten money in 2010? Calculating cap salaries is not an easy thing, but I've tried to calculate the top cap salaries on the Cowboys roster for 2010 and 2011 using publicly available info on each players' contract.

I learned one thing as I tried to figure out those numbers, and that is that nobody outside of NFL front offices truly understands the NFL salary cap and it's rules and exceptions. My calculations may not be entirely accurate, but should be accurate to within a million or so. Peanuts.

The 2010 cap salaries shown in the table on the right would likely place five Cowboys players (Ware, Newman, Davis, Williams and Witten) within the top ten at their positions, even providing for a 10-20% increase in average salaries of the top players in the league.

Looking at these numbers, are the 2009 numbers a statistical aberration from a salary cap point of view, or will the 2010 number be the aberration from a new trend? And looking forward to 2011 (if there is a 2011 season), how many players in the 2011 column do you think will not be on the team in 2011, or will only be on the team with a renegotiated contract?


Below is a look at the 2009 top ten cap figures for each position as per USAToday's salary database. All figures are in millions of dollars.

Offense, 2009
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Manning, Peyton Colts $21.2
McNabb, Donovan Eagles $16.8
Cassel, Matt Chiefs $15.2
Brady, Tom Patriots $14.6
Palmer, Carson Bengals $14.3
Russell, JaMarcus Raiders $13.6
Roethlisberger,B. Steelers $13.2
Manning, Eli Giants $13.1
Favre, Brett Vikings $12.0
Rivers, Philip Chargers $11.5
Wide Receivers
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Fitzgerald, L. Cardinals $10.9
Bryant, A. Bucs $9.9
Moss, Randy Patriots $9.7
Smith, Steve Panthers $9.0
Johnson, C. Lions $8.2
Jennings, G. Packers $8.1
White, Roddy Falcons $8.1
Johnson, A. Texans $7.7
Ochocinco, C. Bengals $7.7
Branch, Deion Seahawks $7.5
Running Backs
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Bush, Reggie Saints $12.1
Tomlinson, L. Chargers $7.5
Jackson, S. Rams $7.4
Westbrook, B. Eagles $6.8
Sproles, Darren Chargers $6.6
Lewis, Jamal Browns $6.4
Gore, Frank 49ers $6.3
Portis, Clinton Redskins $6.2
Jones-Drew, M. Jaguars $6.1
Brown, Ronnie Dolphins $6.1
Tight Ends
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Clark, Dallas Colts $6.8
Graham, Daniel Broncos $6.7
Heap, Todd Ravens $6.4
Winslow, Kellen Bucs $5.2
Davis, Vernon 49ers $4.9
Witten, Jason Cowboys $4.7
Miller, Heath Steelers $4.7
McMichael, R. Rams $4.6
Gonzalez, Tony Falcons $4.5
Scaife, Bo Titans $4.5
Offensive Linemen
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Staley, Joe 49ers $13.5
Peters, Jason Eagles $12.7
Jones, Walter Seahawks $9.8
Long, Jake Dolphins $9.6
Clifton, Chad Packers $8.0
Faine, Jeff Bucs $8.0
Faneca, Alan Jets $7.9
Hutchinson, S. Vikings $7.5
Backus, Jeff Lions $7.3
Dielman, Kris Chargers $7.2
Defense, 2009
Defensive Tackles
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Harris, Tommie Bears $9.1
Haynesworth,A. Redskins $7.0
Rogers, Shaun Browns $6.6
Hampton, Casey Steelers $6.5
Babineaux, J. Falcons $6.5
Kelly, Tommy Raiders $6.3
Jenkins, Kris Jets $6.3
Williams, Pat Vikings $5.9
Henderson, J. Jaguars $5.7
Stroud, Marcus Bills $5.6
Defensive Ends
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Peppers, Julius Panthers $19.2
Allen, Jared Vikings $11.7
Freeney, D. Colts $11.2
Smith, Justin 49ers $10.6
Smith, Will Saints $9.4
Williams, C. Browns $8.8
Schobel, A. Bills $8.6
Castillo, Luis Chargers $8.1
Tuck, Justin Giants $7.7
Harvey, D. Jaguars $7.5
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Urlacher, Brian Bears $10.2
Dansby, K. Cardinals $9.7
Bulluck, Keith Titans $9.1
Scott, Bart Jets $9.0
Williams, D.J. Broncos $8.2
Porter, Joey Dolphins $7.4
Pace, Calvin Jets $7.1
Briggs, Lance Bears $6.8
Peterson, J. Lions $6.5
Thomas, A. Patriots $6.4
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Bailey, Champ Broncos $13.7
Samuel, Asante Eagles $10.0
Robinson, Dunta Texans $10.0
Revis, Darrelle Jets $7.9
Woodson, C. Packers $7.4
Webster, Corey Giants $7.4
Gamble, Chris Panthers $7.0
Hayden, Kelvin Colts $6.7
Winfield, A. Vikings $6.2
Asomugha, N. Raiders $6.0
Player Team 09 Cap Salary
Wilson, Adrian Cardinals $7.0
Polamalu, Troy Steelers $6.5
Reed, Ed Ravens $6.4
Atogwe, O.J. Rams $6.3
Hope, Chris Titans $6.3
Sanders, Bob Colts $6.1
Landry, LaRon Redskins $5.8
Hamlin, Ken Cowboys $5.8
Rhodes, Kerry Jets $5.7
Williams, M. Vikings $5.4

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