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Cowboys Cap Situation: Assembling The Pieces

The final picture is still to be determined, but a few things have started to fall into place.

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Is Tyron Smith the key to getting Dez Bryant a long-term deal.
Is Tyron Smith the key to getting Dez Bryant a long-term deal.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The first day of the NFL Combine was not about college players for the Dallas Cowboys. It was about its own free agents, first and foremost Dez BryantTalk about the growing likelihood of the team using the franchise tag on him and his rather less than enthusiastic reaction was the big story. The team also got some other minor contracts done, but the Bryant story naturally overshadowed them. And of course the team still is holding out some hopes of working out an acceptable deal with DeMarco Murray as well.

However, nestled in those minor contracts was this change to reserve linebacker Dekoda Watson's deal that directly affects Dallas' salary cap room.

He was slated to make $1.25 million but took a pay-cut down to $745,000.

A half a million in cap savings may seem like small potatoes, but with the salary cap, every bit helps.

After years of ridiculous and unjustified talk of "salary cap hell" for Dallas, reality has finally set in. The Cowboys are actually somewhere in the middle of the pack in current cap space, and in far better shape than many other teams. Since the impact on the cap will be one of the driving factors as the Cowboys try to work out a long term deal with Bryant (which is the outcome both sides sincerely hope to achieve), it is a good time to see where Dallas stands. (Unless otherwise noted, all figures used are taken from Over The Cap, which should be bookmarked by anyone who wants to know more about what is really going on with cap issues.)

After the Watson deal was factored in, OTC shows the Cowboys with exactly $13,991,492 in cap space. This puts them pretty much in the middle of the pack in the league. The baseline estimate for the cap is currently $140 million, although the actual number will not be set until the league year begins on March 10. And it will likely be a bit more.

Each team will normally have a slightly different figure since unused cap space can be carried over from year to year, so the Cowboys are shown with a team cap of $143,260,740, pending any adjustments to the base. Just to set the limits, the New Orleans Saints are currently facing the biggest cap issues at a staggering $23,473,215 over their projected cap. This is leading to discussion of just how drastic the moves will be to get under the figure. Some major restructuring of Drew Brees' deal seems inevitable, and some unwanted cuts are also very likely. At the other end of the spectrum, the Jacksonville Jaguars have a ridiculous $61,911,209 in space. It is interesting to note that the top five teams in cap space are composed of the Jags, the Oakland Raiders, the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, and the Tennessee Titans. Perhaps leaving a lot of cap space unused is not a good plan if you wish to succeed in the league (or maybe it is just an indication of not having a lot of talent to spend the money on).

It seems strange to consider, but under the current CBA, there are 10 teams that have to figure out a way to spend more money to get in compliance with the 89% salary floor. What is really bizarre, and evidence that they do a really bad job with managing the cap, is that the Saints are one of the teams. So are the New England Patriots, who at the same time are currently over the cap for 2015, and they are generally seen as the gold standard of all things NFL. Well, all things legal, anyway.

And also under the 89% floor: Your Dallas Cowboys. This should be conclusive evidence of just how strange the whole cap process is. After all those years of being pointed out as being in "cap hell", the Cowboys now are underspending for the current four-year period used to calculate this (2013-2016). They sit at just 82.6%, although the 2014 numbers will also not be final until March 10. No, I do not pretend to be certain how this all works. The only thing that comes to mind is that the restructuring of contracts may cause it by pushing the cap costs back as dead money (which OCC also pointed out in a separate discussion where he made the point that dead money equates to dollars not spent on players in a given year). This is one reason that the Cowboys would probably want to hold off on another restructure of Tony Romo's deal. However, since the penalty for not hitting the floor is to pay the difference directly to the NFLPA to redistribute to players that were on the team during the calculation period, this might actually be something Jerry Jones is willing to do as an end run around the cap restrictions. Maybe someone smarter than me can figure that out.

For now, the Cowboys need to worry about how much more space they will need. For instance, using the tag on Bryant would cost roughly $13 million and basically use up all the space currently available, and the team still has several other positions plus the new rookies coming in to pay. This is yet another reason that a long-term deal is something the team wants, since they can manipulate the contract to push the cap hit to later years. Also, the cap figure prior to the start of the season is based on the top 51 contracts, not 53. In the OTC figures, Dallas and the Chicago Bears are the only teams with 51 or fewer players under contract at this point. That means there will be an offset for any new contract, but it will always be the smallest deal on the books at that point, so it doesn't help much.

Dallas clearly has to find more cap space. If they do want to avoid further mortgaging of Romo's contract, the most likely place to get a big chunk of cap space is to restructure Tyron Smith. This is probably almost certain to happen. His base salary of $11 million and change is fully guaranteed. Change most of it to bonus, and the length of his contract keeps the prorated number reasonable while getting something like $10 million in space.

Jason Witten could also free up as much as $5.1 million with a restructure, but obviously will be a dead money issue since his contract doesn't extend nearly that far into the future - and he can't keep playing forever. We think.

Beyond that, the options get tougher, and involve at least the threat of a cut:

Brandon Carr. There is a lot of talk about going to him and trying to get him to renegotiate a newer, much cheaper deal. He has an $8 million salary this year. If he is cut (post June 1), that becomes cap space, with a dead money cost of a little over $4.7 million this year. With that much space for the team to gain, he ought to be very receptive to a Doug Free-type deal. While going with someone else has risks associated, Carr has just not lived up to the $50 million deal, with about half guaranteed, that he got originally.

Barry Church. He is a starter, but he could save the team $2.25 million if cut. It is not something that seems likely given how he has stepped up for the team, but a restructure could free up a couple of million.

Mackenzy Bernadeau. He is rather expensive as a backup, and could save $1.5 million without having to be designated a post June 1 cut. This may be an option the team has to consider. It may be a bit of a roll of the dice, but the recent track record of finding good interior linemen in the draft is, well, impressive. If the team can do as well beyond the first round, that is.

All of this will have to be factored in, and the team will probably have to use some combination of two or more of these moves. It can also gain some from cutting some lower priced players like, say, Joseph Randle. But the Cowboys have proven to be quite adept at finding ways to do what needs to be done. You can be certain they will get this worked out. It is just somewhat fascinating to see how the puzzle comes together.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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