The 2008 Seattle Seahawks: a team in decline. After five straight playoff appearances, peaking with the dreaded second place finish in the 2005 Super Bowl, the team had steadily weakened. As key players like Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselback aged and faltered while others like Steve Hutchinson left for new teams, the Seahawks bottomed out with a crash at 4-12. 2009 was not much better at 5-11, and Mike Holmgren was sent packing.
The new coach, like many others, got a slight rise out of his team and they made a brief, ineffective playoff appearance with a 7-9 season that was good enough to win what was, five years ago, the weakest division in the NFL. As an aside, there can hardly be a better example of how quickly NFL fortunes change, as the NFC West has, in the last five years, gone from terrible, to fearsome, and now likely begun to fade again as the 49ers are in disarray, the Rams remain a muddle of question marks with some immense defensive talent, and the Cards remain an all-too-recurring Carson Palmer knee injury away from disaster.
But vicissitudes of NFL fortune aside, this is where the story gets interesting. In 2010, Pete Carroll drafted four future starters, three of whom would make the Pro Bowl for their team, including three-time Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor in the fifth round. Carroll doubled down on this performance with six eventual starters in the 2011 draft, including another multiple Pro Bowl player in the fifth round, CB Richard Sherman. Adding four more starters in 2012, two of them eventual Pro Bowlers, one of whom was QB Russell Wilson, and clarity about just where the Seahawks finally got their Lombardi dawns with angelic choirs in attendance.
So, what does this have to do with the Dallas Cowboys and cap management?
The Seahawks did not make their team by big name free agent signings. But if you aren't going to buy a team, what's the use of cap management? What do you need that money for? Keeping your team. The Seahawks were not the first to draw this road map, but arguably have been the best cartographers. Their cap situation was not the road to health, but the result of it, and the reward of it, is that they will mostly be able to keep their team.
On their Super Bowl run, nearly all of the big names you think of were on their rookie contracts: Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Russell Okung, Golden Tate, Bobby Wagner, and, of course, Russell Wilson. Kam Chancellor had just signed his second contract and Marshawn Lynch was already a highly paid star RB. As of this writing, Wagner, Wilson, and Okung are all still on their rookie deals. This is not because of the Seahawks cap management, but is, rather, the cause of their success in cap management,
The Garrett-led Cowboys are on a similar arc. They have not had the fifth-round smashes that the Seahawks have, but they have steadily added strong players, including nine starters and four Pro Bowlers through the drafts under Garrett, and are experiencing a similar cap benefit. Leaving aside this year's picks for the moment, the following nine projected starters for Dallas are still on their rookie contracts: Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, Joseph Randle, Anthony Hitchens, and (essentially) Ronald Leary, whose $585k ERFA tag is essentially a free extension of the rookie salary for Dallas. And let's be clear-- these are not players who are just there because Dallas is too cheap to pay a real NFL caliber guy. Many of these guys have already proven their ability. Two of them have Pro Bowl appearances and it would not shock me to see two more get there this year. Even the weakest of them have shown a lot of positive play and upside.
The result? Even with well over 1/3 of the projected salary cap ($58m) tied up in five players (Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Brandon Carr, Jason Witten, and Greg Hardy), Dallas should have a decent $6m room on the current cap and a projected $26m under next year's. This presumes Hardy's suspension remains at four games and Dez plays under the franchise tag. A long term Dez contract will change that for the better this year at a cost next year, but that will be offset by a near-certain restructure of next year's guaranteed salary for Dez. If Tyrone Crawford has the year many expect, he will cost some serious money and that space may well be needed, but thanks to solid drafting, Dallas has positioned itself well for retaining the services of its young, developing talent.
Is cap health really a reflection of draft health? Or is there a dynamic I've left out of the mix? Let me know what you think below.