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Cowboys 2015 Draft, Future Cap Edition: Gotta Follow The Money

Under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys have worked hard to rid themselves of bloated contracts, drafting young replacements in advance whenever possible. A look at the state of the Cowboys cap in 2016, and how it might affect the 2015 draft.

Will the Cowboys draft Brandon Carr's replacement a year early?
Will the Cowboys draft Brandon Carr's replacement a year early?
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2011, when Jason Garrett first donned the head coaches' helm, the Cowboys have labored to get out from underneath a slew of bloated veteran contracts. In the 2011 offseason, they released veterans Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Marion Barber, Roy E. Williams. In 2012, they waved buh-bye to the likes of Kyle Kosier and Terence Newman. In 2013, it was Dan Connor and Gerald Sensabaugh. More recently, of course, DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin were shown the door.

The players released had two things in common: a big contract and a declining skillset. The Garrett mantra, as has been well documented of late, has been to get younger and cheaper. What this requires, in an ideal world, is that the team draft a replacement before they get rid of the veteran who possesses the nasty big-money-declining skills combo. In turn, this requires that finding these younger replacements be a critical part of the team's draft strategy. And it appears that the Cowboys have been doing exactly that.

In the 2011 draft which, you might recall, happened before free agency due to the labor dispute and lockout, the Cowboys drafted replacements for all the players they had decided to cut: Roy Williams (Dwayne Harris); Marion Barber (DeMarco Murray); Leonard Davis (David Arkin); Marc Colombo (Tyron Smith); Andre Gurode (Bill Nagy) and veteran kicker Kris Brown, who was released to make room for a little-known UDFA kicker named Dan Bailey.

In 2012, since they had spent all their 2011 draft chits on 2011 cuts, the Cowboys turned to free agency to secure younger (if not cheaper) replacements for Kyle Kosier (Mackenzie Bernadeau and Nate Livings were both signed before Kosier was cut) and Terence Newman (Brandon Carr was signed the day after Newman was released, suggesting that the Carr deal was securely enough in place to warrant the move).

In 2013, the team continued to play catch-up, releasing three high-priced vets. Dan Connor and Gerald Sensabaugh were released at the start of the league year; in training camp, the Turk visited Nate Livings. One of the reasons the team could make these moves is they had younger, cheaper (and, the team felt, better) replacements in-house: Bruce Carter (2011), Matt Johnson (2012) and Ronald Leary (2012 UDFA).

More importantly, however, is that the 2013 season was when the team began to get ahead of the bad contracts. In the draft that season, many fans were puzzled by the acquisition of Gavin Escobar and Terrance Williams. But the moves made great sense when we stopped to "follow the money"; both were looked at as replacements for Jason Witten and Miles Austin, players not likely to play to the value of their contracts for much longer.

Indeed, we have already seen this come to pass in the case of Williams and Austin, who was released at the start of the 2014 league year. He joined DeMarcus Ware as veterans who were no longer performing to the level of their contracts. In the 2014 draft, the Cowboys found Ware's cheapie replacement in another DeMarcus, Lawrence. In addition, the team released Phil Costa, who had been rendered needlessly expensive by the arrival of Travis Frederick.

Hopefully, this lengthy history demonstrates the degree to which the Cowboys have been getting out from under "bad" contracts in the past four seasons. In fact, they have done such sterling work that there are very few such deals left on the rolls. Nonetheless, extrapolating from the team's recent behavior, we must ask: might we see the team use the 2015 draft to help rid them of bad contracts in 2016? If so, whose contracts will be replaced? To answer that question, let's look at the top eleven salaries currently on the team's ledger for 2016:

Player 2016 Cap Total Dead Money (if cut) 2016 Cap Savings (if cut)
Tony Romo 17,635,000 19,136,000 1,501,000
Tyron Smith
14,000,000 14,000,000 -0-
Brandon Carr 13,817,000 7,434,000
Jason Witten 7,412,000
1,824,000 5,588,000
Sean Lee 5,950,000 6,850,000 900,000
Doug Free 5,500,000 3,000,000 2,500,000
Orlando Scandrick 5,251,250 3,751,250
Jasper Brinkley 4,750,000
Andrew Gachkar 3,600,000
Cole Beasley 3,356,000
Dan Bailey 3,300,000

The first thing that leaps out when we look at this is how much more well-managed the Cowboys cap is now than it was a mere four years ago. Then, when we did this same exercise, there were many more aging players with big contracts on the rolls as well as numerous contracts that were "in the red" - i.e., players who would cost more to cut than they would to keep. Now, as a much more financially prudent organization looks ahead, it sees only two players who will cost more to cut than to keep: Tony Romo and Sean Lee.

Because they are such a rare commodity, franchise quarterbacks can, and should, be the exception to cap rules. If he could stay healthy, Lee might also warrant an exception. If he's dinged again in 2015, look for the team to seriously consider whether it would be better to take the $900,000 cap hit and move on from a warrior whose body will not allow him to be on the field.

Since that's a "to be determined" question, let's ponder the other category: well-paid players, especially veterans older than 27, who are not living up to their contracts and/ or might provide savings were they to be replaced by younger, cheaper players. This list provides four obvious candidates: Brandon Carr, Jason Witten, Doug Free, and Jasper Brinkley (Andrew Gachkar is 26, and his career may still be on the upswing, so I'll strike him from the list).

They already have a replacement for Witten in house, should the Senator ever slow down (signs of his decline made themselves scarce in 2014) and a quick glance at Brinkley's contract shows that he was brought in to be released the second the team finds a younger, cheaper replacement. To my mind, he doesn't qualify as a player whose replacement might be drafted a year early since I feel that they're going to attempt to replace him in April.

That leaves Carr and Free, a couple of players who fans have wanted to see replaced for some time now. In last year's edition of "follow the money," I wrote:

Unless they are absolutely certain that Jermey Parnell or Darrion Weems is the long-term answer at right tackle (and how could they?), expect the team to draft one in a little over two months - and higher than we'd expect. If they are looking to find a starter by 2015, they'll have to spend a first or second day pick. Thus it should not surprise us to see several offensive tackle candidates come to Dallas for mid-April visits...

Instead of drafting Free's replacement, the Cowboys opted to re-sign him. While that's a fine solution, it doesn't solve the long-term problem, which is that he's at the age where he may soon be under-performing his high contract. As a result, what I wrote last year still holds: don't be surprised if they take long looks at some athletic right tackles who are likely to be drafted in the middle rounds.

And that brings us to Carr. Whereas drafting Free's replacement seems to be a good idea, finding Carr's successor seems almost a certainty. It's possible that the team will restructure his deal. Assuming they don't, and that it remains as its presently constituted (they certainly can afford to maintain the status quo), its a surety that they will release him in 2016, when the salary vs. performance vs. cap savings equation makes the decision a no-brainer.

What is the takeaway here? In our most recent mock draft tracker, most pundits were giving the Cowboys defensive linemen and running backs, positions that, on the surface, appear to be less fortified, even after the Greg Hardy acquisition. With Carr's performance-pay inequity and Mo Claiborne's contract expiring after this year, don't be surprised if the Cowboys draft corners early come April. Like first round early.

Heck, all you gotta do is to follow the money...

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