If you have not been paying attention to Mike Fisher, who appears on and writes for 103.5 The Fan/CBSDFW.com, you should. He is insightful about the Dallas Cowboys, he does not have an axe to grind with Jerry Jones or anyone else at Valley Ranch, and usually when he starts talking about what is likely to happen in a day or two, he is pretty danged accurate. Oh, and he also is known to cite a certain OCC you may have heard of as an authority on all things numerical regarding the Cowboys.
The evidence for today: A piece on how four of the 2013 draft picks are targeted at getting the salary cap under control in the next two to three years. While we have gotten ourselves all wrapped around the axle about trade value charts and who was not taken in order to get a center and a wide receiver, Fisher has figured out that the team is looking ahead and getting the replacements in place now for some of the starters who the team is going to have to part ways with in the not-too-distant future.
Here are the four players Fisher points out and the potential replacements for them that are now in place:
Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. Target year for replacement: 2015. Cost of cutting Witten or having him retire: $1.84 million. Cap cost if he stays: $7 million. Escobar would be paid around $800,000.
Miles Austin and Terrance Williams. 2015 or 2016 look to be best years to cut Austin with acceptable cap hits.
Orlando Scandrick and B.W. Webb. Again, 2015 would look to be the target year to make the move, since the cost of cutting Scandrick in 2014 is $5.7 million (But, to quote Fisher, "As OCC notes, that could be mitigated by making him a June 1 cut.")
DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle. Murray is not an expensive option, still playing on his rookie contract. But he would have to be re-signed at a much greater cost to play in 2015, and Randle may make that unnecessary.
Of course, with the love that Fish is showing for our "Goog", we'd be remiss not to bring up the fact that our own Rabblerousr first discussed this strategy earlier this offseason. Rabble was trying to decipher how Dallas would approach the 2013 draft, and was fairly prescient, right down to a certain wide receiver target.
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.
Judging from several of the comments floating around the Twitterverse after Fisher's article was first published, some were especially upset about the talk of replacing a player of Witten's stature who shows no signs of wanting to end his career before his contract runs out in 2017. However, some of the biggest criticisms leveled at Jerry Jones in the past is signing aging veterans to contracts that were way too expensive for the team to get out of, and failing to bring in new talent to replace those aging stars. The NFL is not an overly sentimental business, and sometimes your past stars have to be turned loose to keep the team moving forward. As this shows, the team took some major steps to correct those issues this year. There are still some other positions that need to be addressed, like QB and DE, but the team does not have unlimited draft picks to work with, and it did well with what it had. Next year should take care of some more. It is all about putting one good draft on top of another, to coin a phrase.
Of course, the projected replacements still need to work out on the field, but at least the team has invested its draft picks in trying to get things taken care of in advance, and not have to rely on finding and signing more expensive free agent solutions. And Fisher also points out how the team is trying to plan ahead for the stars it wants to get signed to new deals at the end of their rookie contracts. He states that the Doug Free pay cut or become a June 1 cut situation is not just about finding a better RT, but about finding money to extend Sean Lee. And both Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith would be great candidates for new deals in 2015.
The evidence continues to grow that the Cowboys are starting to get a long-term approach in place. Something is changing in the way they do business. I don't know if it is growing influence from Stephen Jones, the Jason Garrett Process, or Jerry Jones finally realizing that this cap thing has to be taken seriously, but something is happening, and it is all for the best. I tend to think it is a little of all of the above.
I am extremely hopeful that the Cowboys get into the playoffs and go all the way. But I desperately hope that they have a good enough season to make Jason Garrett's job a little more stable, because the improvements in drafting and player development seem to go back to the start of his time as head coach. Losing him to another failed campaign would put all that I see changing for the better in Valley Ranch at risk. There is more than one season's glory at stake in getting back to a winning record for the Cowboys. This is about the long term health of the franchise.