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Can The Cowboys Keep Their Starters Next Year?

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Whether or not you want to, is it even possible for Dallas to sign everyone back next year?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are a potent team. Sitting atop the NFC East at 5-1 and in a very real argument for Super Bowl contention, the Cowboys are also making headlines off the field for the spectacular team chemistry they are exhibiting. To a man, every word, every glance, every whiff of a rumor is about focusing on the next game and getting better every day. Jason Garrett’s ideas suffuse this team to the point that every single player in uniform appears to have bought in, whole hog.

So, is it possible to keep that?

Well, Garrett would be the first to say you don’t. In fact, he has made a point of saying that every year is different. Despite all the parallels and comparisons to the 2014 team, this team is actually much closer to last year’s 4-12 team in actual make up at the moment, which gives credence both to Garrett’s mantra and to his (and others) words that the coaches do share a significant portion of blame for last year’s debacle. But what if you did want to "keep the band together?" Does the cap even allow it? With Dallas already $6 million over next year’s cap and a host of soon-to-be free agents, it would seem the answer is "no".

Salary Structures

Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick both have huge salary numbers next year... both clearly intended for restructure as they have multiple years on the end of their contracts with zero pro-rated bonus at all. Doing so brings Dallas to just under $12 million in cap space for 2017. From there, it takes some creativity.

Now is the perfect time to extend Dez Bryant. He has been, essentially, injured since signing his new contract. With only five years on the total contract, he was "betting on the come" and expecting another big contract in 2019 at age 29. If you extend his contract in 2017, adding a couple of $13 million seasons to the end of it you can save another $6 million in 2017 cap. The problem here is that he may not want to do that, continuing to believe he’ll get a bigger, long-term contract at 29. There’s risk here for both team and player if Bryant continues to struggle with injuries. So let’s say they don’t make this move.

Then you have Jason Witten and Doug Free. Both are in very expensive final years of their contract in 2017 and both may well have their roles reduced. Extending them makes a lot more sense for both. Extending Witten for three years (to a Tony Gonzalez-like 38 years old at retirement) adds almost as much to the cap as restructuring Dez, without taking as much later cap space and puts Dallas at $16 million for 2017. In doing this I gave Witten about $4 million per year overall, which puts him just above Ben Watson and even with Brent Celek for cost. For Free, 32-year-old veteran back up right tackles are not in high demand, getting about $1-1.5 million a year. Free is due $5 million in 2017, but using that as signing bonus to extend him to a 3-4 year vet minimum contract to continue his mentorship of this line group while remaining a perfectly viable, perhaps even the best, NFL swing tackle through his waning years seems like a really smart deal for all concerned. That brings Dallas up to $19 million in cap space for 2017, while leaving $33 million in 2018 when Zack Martin and La’el Collins come due.

High Prices

While that seems like a good start to our ambitious program, Dallas has some real problems. Several starter-quality free agents at high-priced positions.

Terrance Williams

With Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns each garnering $10 million a year and even the likes of Mohamed Sanu and Travis Benjamin getting $6-6.5 million a year, I think Williams is going to price himself out of Dallas. Let’s anticipate a Sanu-like contract. $7 million signing bonus, minimum year 1, $6-6.5 million a year starting in 2018. That puts Dallas at $16.9 million in cap space. Hmmm... not too bad yet.

Ron Leary

This is an interesting piece. You know he’s top quality, but his career might also be over any time. He is going to want a big payday, but will teams pay, knowing he has a possible limited shelf life? I think he gets paid like an older player than he is. I modeled his contract over Andy Levitre, who was a prized free agent, but 29 at the time of his contract. I paid Leary just a skosh less per year and gave him a slightly bigger signing bonus to make it up because I think he’ll want to protect himself. Leary’s contract would bring Dallas down to $14.2 million. More importantly, however, Dallas is quickly running out of 2018 cap space at $20 million (though there are a lot of ways to ameliorate that).

Barry Church

After a disappointing 2015, Barry Church is playing at the highest level we have seen from him. I’m honestly not sure what his market value is, but I’m going to base it on the value of another Cowboys free agent turned nice-piece-to-have, in Andrew Sendejo of the Vikings. His 4-year, $16 million contract sounds about the right range. Dallas is now at $12.3 million.

Brandon Carr

Carr is also playing extremely well, though with the way Anthony Brown is coming along, his value may be limited. He pretty much set his value this year with his pay cut, and I’m going to put him just below that as he continues to age. Though CBs are typically expensive, I think Carr will come in a little lower than DeAngelo Hall did. Not that they are similar players, but that they once had similarly high expectations and their contracts come at similar stages in their career. This puts Dallas at $10.3 million.

Terrell McClain

A good defensive tackle is hard to find. McClain has had health issues throughout his career, but now that he is healthy is showing what he can do. The Cowboys also have a fair amount of eggs in the Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton baskets, so this is another player they may not choose to re-sign, especially with Maliek Collins playing the way he is. I gave him 4-years, $18 million, roughly equivalent to the Jaguars Sen’Derrick Marks. This puts Dallas at $8.2 million left for 2017 and a distressing $6.9 million for 2018.

Morris Claiborne

Claiborne is currently playing at tops in the league and with his draft pedigree is likely to get paid like it. I’m modeling his contract after the Giants free agent and Claiborne draft classmate Janoris Jenkins with a very slight hometown discount for Dallas continuing to have faith in him and bring him along. This leaves Dallas with $5.5 million under 2017’s cap so we did it!

Or Did We?

This cap figure is probably just enough to get rookies signed, but bringing back these starters will leave Dallas completely unable to sign other free agents in case of emergency. It also leaves Dallas $6.8 million OVER the cap for 2018, with both Zack Martin and La’el Collins due big pay days. Of course, cutting Tony Romo in 2018 immediately (or, as of June 1st anyway) puts Dallas as much as $13 million back in the black and I fully expect he’ll be a major change to the 2018 cap in one way or another.

By and large, however, I wouldn’t expect to see all those names back in 2017. It is, in fact, entirely likely that all of the above listed free agents are gone. For me, I keep Claiborne first, then think about Carr, Church, and Williams, while talking to their agents. Depending on circumstances, I might be interested in bringing back Leary as a starter, but only if I really believed he was better, long term, than La’el Collins, whom the Cowboys would seem to have anointed when they convinced him to come here as a free agent.