All NFL teams have two goals. They want to win now, but they also want to sustain any success over a longer term. Sometimes teams make a clear choice to go one way or the other. More often they try to balance things, and if they do it extremely well, they can manage to do some of both. The Dallas Cowboys try to fall into the latter category, as the showed in the draft where Ezekiel Elliott was very much a pick to help them win this fall, while second-round selection Jaylon Smith is not expected to be any help this year, but could be a long-term monster at linebacker if that nerve ever fires. At the same time, they have developed a definite strategy in free agency, where they seek to find solid but not often spectacular players with good upside while eschewing big contracts.
In addition to the draft and free agency, there is a third component to the win now/sustain the success formula. That is signing players to second or third contracts, or extending them. With the normally very short careers in the NFL, teams have to make a careful calculation of how much tread is left, when a decline in performance is likely, and how much they can pay given the constraints of the salary cap. Dallas is fortunate to not have any pressing decisions to make in this area right now, but last season we saw the protracted negotiation with Dez Bryant before the team signed him to a five year, $70 million deal. That seemed like a lot of money at the time, but a couple of ongoing situations elsewhere in the league may make it look like a real bargain in the long run, despite 2015 being largely a disappointment for Bryant due to his foot injury.
The Indianapolis Colts are working on a new deal for Andrew Luck, and reports are that it will make him the highest paid player in the league, with an annual salary of around $25 million. There are indications the team wanted to sign him for ten years, but now it looks like it will wind up a five- or six-year contract. Still, that is a huge number for a player who is still more a potential winner than proven commodity. Admittedly, he has been limited to an extent by his supporting cast so far, getting beaten up repeatedly as his protection falls apart. If Luck can get a little help in that area, he is worth the price as one of the few true franchise quarterbacks to come out of college in recent years.
The Cowboys signed Tony Romo to his current contract in 2013, and as has become common with the ever escalating salary cap, his $18 million a year deal, seen as excessive by some at the time, now looks eminently reasonable. Like Luck, he is still more a potential winner than anything, but a healthy Romo is still one of the best in the business. He also shows the value of getting the deals done early if possible, because the longer the team waits, the more they are forced to pay.
One player who has the big skin on the wall is Von Miller, who has parlayed his outstanding 2015 season, capped by a monster performance in the Super Bowl, into what is expected to be the biggest contract for a non-quarterback so far in the NFL. He has reportedly turned down a six-year, $114.5 million offer from the Broncos, with the sticking point being guaranteed money and how much the first three years are worth. That's a tick over $19 million a year, putting the offer ahead of the $17 million a year Vernon Olivier got in free agency from the New York Giants (and probably a much better value for Denver). But now there is talk of Miller holding out for the 2016 season.
This shows the logic behind the Cowboys trying to lock up the players it sees as long term stars as soon as possible, the way they did with Tyron Smith and Tyrone Crawford. It keeps the costs down, both in terms of actual payout and cap hit. It is why they will likely be trying to get something done with Travis Frederick before they get to having to look at using franchise tags. When they get it right, as they did with Smith, it keeps the best players in the fold while freeing up money to use elsewhere. It also comes with the risk of locking in a player who doesn't pay off, but so far they have not had any obvious missteps in the past few years.
One other benefit with getting deals done early is that it keeps the player in the offseason program. Bryant held out while he was negotiating his new deal, which is the only leverage players have. But even a fantastic physical specimen like him cannot really get into football shape working on his own. It is hard to say if this contributed to his injury, which seems more like one of those freak things that happen when you football, but it certainly did not help him be ready for camp.
Of course, the management of the payroll and salary cap is good only when it leads to success on the field. That was not the case in 2015 due to the key injuries suffered and the often dissected failure to have a workable plan at backup QB, but with better health, the Cowboys look loaded this season, at least on offense. If the team succeeds this year, they look to be in good shape to continue that success. It is a huge if, obviously, but the staff has done a lot to set things up. We can only hope it pays off.