It is called legal tampering, which is a rare example that the NFL does actually have a rudimentary sense of humor. NFL teams are talking with agents, although they cannot meet with players themselves until the actual start of free agency on March 10. But for the first time, teams are able to publicly discuss real numbers. More importantly, they can start to judge who they can afford and who they will have to pass on.
The Dallas Cowboys are under the cap, but just barely. In order to get an idea of what they can do, you have to first figure out exactly where they stand and how they can find some more cap space (which they can, but always at some cost down the road).
The cap figure for Dallas, including the base cap established for the league as a whole plus the carry over from 2015, is exactly $148,016,713. (All figures are taken from Over The Cap, and reflect the numbers known at the time this is written. Given the fluid nature of things and the possibility that new deals can get done at any time, I apologize in advance if some numbers are different by the time you read this.) Under the rules, only the top 51 contracts count during the offseason. The current total for those top 51 contracts is $144,123,582. That leaves the Cowboys with a total of $3,854,131 in space. But that does not reflect the new contract for Doug Free, which will entail a reported cap hit of $3 million. However, that will push the lowest contract of the 51 off the list. That is for Ben Gardner, and it represents a hit of $449,793. So if my math is right (no guarantees), the Cowboys actually have only $1,343,924 in cap space at the moment. In order to sign anyone else, either their own free agents or someone from another team, Dallas has to find more cap space.
There are four main places the team can go. It can restructure the contracts of Tyron Smith and Tony Romo. This will push a portion of their cap hits out into future years. Romo's current cap hit is the biggest in the NFL at $27.773 million. The team would prefer to minimize any restructuring of his deal to get as much of that off the books this year as possible, but it is still there if the absolutely have to use it. Smith is a different matter. His current hit is $13.039 million, but his contract runs through 2023, and none of it is guaranteed past this year. The team can change some of this year to bonus, prorating it over up to five years, and gain something on the order of $10 million in cap space for this season. This was built into the contract, as reflected in all the guaranteed money already being paid, and some kind of restructure is all but certain. That will in effect guarantee more money, which makes sense of the original structure.
Those are two contracts that provide a ready source of space. Another is that of Brandon Carr. The team wants him to negotiate a new deal with them, as Doug Free did several years ago. He has already collected his $25.5 million in guaranteedd money. If he refuses to do a new deal, the team can designate him a post-June 1 cut and free up $8 million in space this year, with a resulting dead money cost of $4.717 million this year and next, and $2.717 million in 2017. It is not ideal by any means, but it is doable.
Finally, the team can work out a long term deal with Dez Bryant. His current hit under the franchise tag is $12.823 million, and the team could prorate a good deal of that out. They could free up a good deal of money with him, again pushing whatever they free into future years.
There are other places the team could go for more money by cutting players or restructuring, but the money involved is nothing like the team has available in those big four contracts, or in the case of players like Sean Lee or Jason Witten, it does not make sense because of the age of the players and the current state of their contracts.
But as has often been observed, Dallas can find the money to do what it needs to be done. Dallas has been reported to have interest in various players.
But the Cowboys are not likely to jump into the free agent market right away. That is not the way they now do business. They want to let the big contracts get done by other teams. After the market settles down, they will then be interested in finding low-cost deals for undervalued players, the way they did last year with Henry Melton and Jeremy Mincey.
That does not mean that the Cowboys do not have work that they can do now. There are still several of their own free agents that the team can look to re-sign to fill in the roster before they start looking for those economical deals elsewhere. Dave Halprin has put together a tracker that is being updated as news comes in. Of the current free agents, here are the ones that the Cowboys will likely be looking at first.
Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Rolando McClain. The Cowboys have Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber currently under contract, plus several other players that do not leap out as names you want to rely on. There were some reports that the team was close to a deal with Durant a few days ago, but that seems to have been put on hold, possibly so the team could finalize the deal with Free, a higher priority. The team may still be able to sign one or two of these players, but that may well depend on what they find out as the market gets going.
Anthony Spencer and Nick Hayden. The defensive line is an ongoing concern, and Spencer was a key component in the rotation at end and came on strong towards the end of the season, while Hayden was a starter at tackle. They are two players that might not see much interest from outside and be available at prices that the Cowboys may be able to handle. Hayden in particular was always poorly rated at Pro Football Focus, but the team seems to have a very different evaluation of him.
Sterling Moore. It has just been reported by Todd Archer that the team will not tender him as a restricted free agent, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. This is a bit surprising because of the need for good players in the secondary, and Moore was fairly good. But it could be a preliminary step to seeking a longer term deal with him once the market is set for his services.
Other in-house free agents will almost certainly be gone. Dwayne Harris may not be valuable enough primarily as a special teams ace. George Selvie is reportedly getting nibbles from other teams. And Jermey Parnell is definitely getting interest from teams, including Washington, where Bill Callahan may be pounding a table to try and get a player he worked with for years to shore up a shaky offensive line. Free's signing probably made him superfluous for Dallas anyway.
Those are the likely names that will be involved in early free agent moves by Dallas. They may go after one or two "big" names, like Paea, but they will have to be very judicious. But free agency will not be dull, even if Cowboys fans will have to do a bit of waiting to find out how things play out.