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Dallas Cowboys Draft Strategies (Pt 2): Bad and Expiring Contracts

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Even though the draft is nominally all about talent acquisition, there’s no denying that it’s also an integral part of salary cap management. The draft is the perfect vehicle for bringing in talented and cheap labor to replace old and expensive employees.

With the tentative agreement on a rookie wage scale in the aborted CBA talks, this has become even more evident. Even in the first round of the draft, teams will now be able to stock up on top talent that will be significantly cheaper than equivalent talent acquired via free agency.

The Cowboys have traditionally been at the very top of the pyramid with regard to the salary cap, and 2011 will likely be no different. After the break, we look at some of the most unfavorable player contracts from a cap and franchise perspective for the Dallas Cowboys and see how the Cowboys could address that through the draft.

Large contracts by themselves are no reason for concern. Romo, Ware and Austin all have very large contracts, and as long as their performance is commensurate to their salaries, Jerry Jones is more than happy to pay those salaries.

It’s when there is a gap between performance and remuneration that the situation gets a little more complicated. More often than not, this happens towards the end of a player’s career, when his performance stagnates or declines while his back-loaded contract pays him more money every year.

Billy Beane, general manager of MLB's Oakland A's and protagonist of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, described the issue succinctly in an interview with the Financial Times last year.

"Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts," explains Beane, "because once they stop performing, they become immoveable. And as they become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher."

The Cowboys have a handful of these costly contracts that effectively pay for past achievements and not for future performance. The table below lists seven contracts that are large and, with one exception, are for veterans who’ll be over 30 years old by the end of the 2011 season:

Player Age end 2011 11 Cap salary (est.)
Terence Newman 33 10.0
Roy Williams 30 9.4
Leonard Davis 33 8.4
Andre Gurode 33 7.2
Marion Barber 28 6.8
Bradie James 30 5.1
Jon Kitna 39 2.6

One caveat about these numbers: they may not be 100% accurate. While the base salaries for all players for 2011 are well known, calculating the exact salary cap figure for NFL salaries with all of the legal terminology about proration and acceleration of signing bonuses, other bonuses, incentives and all the associated capology jargon could put grown men into the fetal position for an extended period of time. So while these numbers should be directionally right, let me know if I got one wrong and I’ll correct it.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume a salary cap comes back in 2011. Let’s also assume that it’ll be around $140 million. The seven contracts listed above account for $49.5 million, or more than one third of the Cowboys’ total salary cap. If you’re the GM, wouldn’t you want to replace these players with younger, cheaper and perhaps better players? That’s exactly what we’re going to do now.

"Bad contract strategy"

Like in the last post, we’ll use Drafttek’s Online Draft Simulator (ODS) to knock out a mock draft. Here’s a short reminder about the Positional Priority Codes, which the ODS uses determine team needs.

  • Priority 3 (or P3): Team is in need of "Starting Caliber" talent at the position, but will not reach too much for it. Think of this as a "best player available at positions of need".
  • Priority 4 (or P4): Team is in need of "Depth" at the position, but will not reach for it.
  • Priority 5 (or P5): Team is in need of "Depth" at the position, and will address that need in rounds 4-7. P5 needs will be addressed in rounds 1-3 only if no higher priority needs can be filled.
  • Priority 9 (or P9): A P9 position will only be drafted once all other positions have been filled. The ODS program will then revert to a Best Player Available mode to select the highest rated P9.

Using these priority codes, here’s a strategy for how the Cowboys could go into the draft with the objective of addressing those bad contracts:

Player Pos Priority Code Rationale
Terence Newman CB P3, M4 The Cowboys are extremely thin at CB as it is, and getting a corner, perhaps even two, early in the draft would be a high priority. "M4" is a Multiple Code that allows me to potentially draft two corners in the ODS.
Bradie James ILB P3 Bradie James may not have reached his sell-by date yet, but Brooking, while fairly cheap, will be 36 at the end of the season, and Sean Lee, though talented, cannot man both ILB spots.
Leonard Davis OG P4 The Cowboys might take a guard in free agency anyway, but drafting a solid prospect should be a priority.
Andre Gurode OC P4 Another solid prospect on the line would have the Cowboys fans sleeping much better.
Marion Barber RB P6 Solid running backs can be found in the later rounds. The Cowboys are looking for a short yardage guy in the mold of a young (and cheap) Marion Barber, himself a fourth round pick.
Roy Williams WR P6 The Cowboys have Austin and Bryant as their main go-to-guys, but could do with a reliable slot receiver who can run accurate routes to provide some competition for Hurd, Ogletree and the rest. They could find one in the later rounds to build depth.
Jon Kitna QB P6 Thanks for stepping up last year, Jon.


Draft Weekend, April 28 – 30, 2011. This how the draft unfolds, courtesy of Drafttek’s ODS.

On draft day, the first six picks happen in rapid succession, with the picks going as follows:

1. Carolina: Da’Quan Bowers, DE
2. Denver: Marcell Dareus, DT
3. Buffalo: Von Miller, OLB
4. Cincinnati: Cam Newton, QB
5. Arizona: Patrick Peterson, CB
6. Cleveland: Cameron Jordan, DE

Jerry Jones is sweating bullets. Two more picks before it’s his turn, and only one elite CB is still on the board. Jerry tries to trade up with the 49ers for Amukamara, but they decline and pick Amukamara themselves. Bummer.

The Cowboys war room is strangely quiet, and we see a lot of dejected faces. But in the middle of the disappointment, the Titans pick QB Blaine Gabbert and the Cowboys realize that the two top wide receivers, Green and Jones, are both still available. They briefly consider taking either one of the receivers, when the phone rings. The Rams are on the line. They claim they already have a deal with Houston in place for the Texans' 11th pick, and wanted to know whether Jerry Jones wants to get in on the action. Jerry does, but the Rams know they can get at least one of the two receivers with the eleventh pick and make a conservative offer, proposing their first (14th) and third (78th) rounders for the Cowboys first rounder.

Jerry consults the draft value chart and starts looking physically ill: the Rams are offering 1,300 points for the Cowboys 1,350 points. He tries to finagle an extra 4th rounder out of the Rams but they just laugh him off. Grudgingly, Jones accepts the deal. Much to my surprise, the Rams proceed to pick Julio Jones over A.J. Green, whom the Redskins pick at number ten.

A short while later, the Cowboys are on the clock with their fourteenth pick. Their biggest needs are ILB or CB, which should they go for? The Lions just picked CB Brandon Harris with the 13th pick. The Cowboys briefly consider taking CB Jimmy Smith, but because they are confident that they can get a good corner in the second or third round, they take the best inside linebacker available in the 2011 draft, Martez Wilson, ILB, Illinois.

When the 40th pick comes around, the Cowboys find that their hunch is confirmed, there are still quite a number of corners on the board and the Cowboys pick Curtis Brown, CB, Texas. [In the ODS, I had a grab code on Brown, allowing me to override the simulator logic and grab the player I wanted.]

At 71, much to their surprise, the Cowboys find Ras-I Dowling, CB out of Virginia, waiting for them [Again I use a grab code on Dowling to pick him over RB Kendall Hunter]. In 2009, most scouts considered Dowling a first round prospect, but a slew of injuries saw his stock drop significantly. With Dowling, the Cowboys add a CB with elite size (6’1, 198) and speed (Dowling recorded the fastest 10 yard split by a DB at the combine with 1.47, pulls up at the end of his first 40 yard run with a pulled hamstring, and still clocks in at 4.4 flat) to shore up the CB position and add the critical fourth CB they’ve been missing. No more CB/Safety tweeners on the roster from now on.

Seven picks later at 78, with the pick acquired from the Rams, the Cowboys snap up Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor. Watkins had been touted as a potential second round pick, but it turns out his age (26) did scare off a couple of teams in the end. Hudson Houck is delighted; after all, he had made the trip to Baylor’s Pro Day specifically because of Watkins.

In the fourth round the Cowboys pick RB Shane Vereen, who has the potential to be a good rotation back and is good in short yardage situations with good agility. The Cowboys round out the draft with a receiver, and two QBs. Here’s the full overview of the ODS-assisted Cowboys draft:

1st Round (17th pick) 2nd Round 3rd Round 3rd Round (78th pick) 4th Round 5th Round 6th Round 7th Round
Player Martez Wilson, ILB, Illinois Curtis Brown, CB, Texas Ras-I Dowling, CB, Virginia Danny Watkins, OG, Baylor Shane Vereen, RB, California Pat Devlin, QB, Delaware Darvin Adams, WR, Auburn Nathan Enderle, QB, Idaho
Reach/ Value -7 -31 -14 -11 +25 +3 -3 +3
ODS Codes   P3Grab P4Grab        

With this draft, the Cowboys could release most of the players with a bad contract (I’d keep Gurode and Kitna for now) and, in theory, save almost $40 million in cap space. I say in theory, because in practice, the cap figure savings will not be as high. This is because when a player is released, the total remainder of his signing bonus - which had been prorated over the length of the contract - will count against the salary cap. Particularly in the case of Roy Williams, this is such a high sum that it is probably cheaper to keep him on the roster.

Regardless, even with ‘only’ $25-30 million savings generated by such a draft strategy, the Cowboys should be easily able to shore up all the need positions on the O-line and in the secondary with high quality free agents.

The mock above may not be a good predictor of what will actually happen on draft day, and it is just a theoretical example anyway, but rest assured that ‘bad contracts’ figure heavily in draft decisions.

"Expiring Contracts Strategy"

Another thing that teams take into consideration as they look at their draft needs is the status of their player contracts.

The Cowboys are likely to lose some players to free agency this year (insert your favorite CBA disclaimer here), and have a number of players whose contracts are up next year. I've summarized the players as well as the priorities I see for the positions in the table below.

Untendered 2011 Free Agents Code
2012 Free Agents Code
S: Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball P3 LB: Keith Brooking, Bradie James, Anthony Spencer P3, M4
OG: Kyle Kosier P3 G: Montrae Holland P3
DE: Marcus Spears P6 QB: Jon Kitna P5
WR: Sam Hurd P6 CB: Orlando Scandrick P6
    RB: Tashard Choice P6
    TE: Martellus Bennett P6
    P: Mat McBriar, K: Kris Brown

Top priorities going forward should be both linebacker positions, guard and safety, and it may be time to start thinking about getting a viable successor for Romo installed - the need isn't urgent yet, but why not get an early start in the process? I fed the codes above into the ODS, and here's what Drafttek' supercomputer came back with:

1st Round 2nd Round 3rd Round 4th Round 5th Round 6th Round 7th Round
Player Robert Quinn, OLB, North Carolina Mason Foster, ILB, Washington Tyler Sash, SS, Iowa Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State Chris Culliver, FS, South Carolina Alex Henery, PK, Nebraska Zach Pianolto, TE, North Carolina
Reach / Value -1 +5 -9 +4 -23 +37 +9

Obviously, like in any one of these strategy-based mock drafts, major need positions are not addressed. In this specific mock, that would be O-line and corner - at a minimum. As I said in the previous post, that's why God invented free agency. Not all holes can be plugged in the draft.

In both mocks the main concern is that the Cowboys drafted inside linebackers at the expense of offensive linemen. The situation at linebacker must be a growing concern at Valley Ranch, and may require a move in free agency to fix.

In the next post, we'll look at how the Cowboys' offensive and defensive schemes, philosophies and strategies could drive their draft choices.