Dallas fans and even local media have long recognized that Stephen Jones has mastered the NFL salary cap as only a chemical engineer can. This hasn't stopped the criticism and has only begun to shift the overriding stereotype of Dallas as the team that tries and fails to buy Lombardi Trophies. Nonetheless the consistent undercurrent in the writers who cover the team has been tacit acknowledgement that Stephen really knows the cap backwards and forwards.
Like everyone else, I have made my share of guesses this off season about what Dallas needed to do with the cap. After much consideration, I want to change my tune slightly. I'd like to submit three moves that might be cap genius at work, even if they appear to be trouble at first glance.
Item 1: The Rolando McClain Contract
Several people have pointed out (including Tom Ryle) that McClain's contract is set for a quick and painless parting of ways should he not show a heart for the game. Over half of his $2.8m cap figure is rolled into a one-time roster bonus and Dallas stands to save about $2.3m should McClain be cut at the end of camp. It looks like the Cowboys might have been preparing for the recent news that McClain would be facing a four-game suspension and that would be his last strike.
But upon review, there might be another interpretation. The news has not been clear on this, but the four game suspension is a different punishment from the four game fine announced in February. According to a drug policy document on the NFLPA website, the four game fine will be based on last year's pay. Then, separately, McClain will be suspended without pay for four games this season as well. The four game fine may have already been paid out of McClain's signing bonus, or it may come from game checks this year, but he is ultimately losing eight games of pay, at least four of which were known about before his contract was structured. Dallas is forbidden from directly raising his pay to offset this.
But the structure of the Greg Hardy contract shows how far outside the box Stephen Jones's cap comfort zone extends. What if the McClain contract simply does the same thing? "Here's the deal. We're going to pay you $3m, but you have some fines and suspensions coming and we don't want to be on the hook for them. We'll give you a near-minimum deal and put the rest in game day roster bonuses and incentives so whatever happens, we minimize the difference between what you do for us and what we pay you for." The contract may not at all reflect a lack of desire for McClain's presence and more reflect a way to find fair compensation for him while protecting the team. And, indeed, his contract is structured precisely this way (hat tip to OCC).
Item 2: The Brandon Carr Pay Cut
The conventional wisdom is that Brandon Carr needed to take a pay cut this year or face a June 1 cut. I argued that he was still a starting caliber NFL CB and that, with a good cap situation, Dallas didn't need to play around. They could either cut him outright or keep him as an important piece. Dallas appears to be of the opinion that they want to keep him, but "work something out to everyone's benefit." How do you make a player cost less without asking him to give up money? Math is a wonderful thing.
Dallas will, I believe, let Carr play this year under his current deal. Their cap moves are largely complete for 2015 and they still have a good bit of comfort space to get emergency players or roll unused cap space into next year. Carr only has two more years under contract and they are quite expensive. How do you reduce his cap impact while not asking him to give up any money? A one-year extension.
Carr is set to make $19.1m over the next two years. In 2016, expect to see him sign a one-year extension with a $9m signing bonus and salaries of $1m, $5m, and $6m respectively for 2016-2018. It's likely 2016 would be guaranteed. Carr gets $10m in guaranteed money and a total of $22m under contract, while Dallas gets the option of cutting him in 2018 for a $6m cap savings while creating $7m in 2016 cap space and $5m in 2017 space. Carr gets a reasonable opportunity to make more than he was originally promised and Dallas gets to spread out his money over an extra year. Everyone wins.
Item 3: The Franchise Player
Dez Bryant has proven himself to be a top wide receiver and, despite what NFL.com might say, a top ten player in the league. He certainly deserves a long-term, big-money deal and I have been of the opinion that the Cowboys will give him one sooner rather than later.
But Dallas has a lot of incentive to go ahead and let Dez play under the franchise tag. This year's franchise tag is likely less money than Dez will command annually. Possibly more important, though, is that signing Dez right now impacts next year considerably. With Tyrone Crawford, Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, and Ron Leary as possible long-term contract targets, that looms large. Because of Leary's RFA status and the team's recent draftees, I think Crawford is the only must-have out of those guys, but he will be a big hit. One possibility is signing Dez now, but giving him a considerable salary this year to up his guaranteed money as well as keeping more of his contract on this year. Doing this along with making the contract more than five years long to allow a built-in 2016 restructure should allow a long term contract that is to everyone's satisfaction.
If I Were Stephen
My plan would be to use the above tactic with Carr as well as sign Dez to a 7-year, $100m contract with $40m guaranteed as follows:
$20m signing bonus
2015 - $6m guaranteed
2016 - $14m guaranteed with restructure trigger
2017 - $9m
2018 - $9m
2019 - $12m
2020 - $15m
2021 - $15m
which leaves Dallas with $14.4m this year (though $6-8m of that will be eaten by Hardy's money).
What would you do if you were Stephen?