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Smart spending will keep these pass rushing stars in Dallas

The Cowboys have finally hit on landing great talent on the defensive line and they’re not about to let them get away.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

My last write-up discussed how the Cowboys have had to make sacrifices this season in order to set themselves up for success in the grand scheme of things. The departures of free agents like Ron Leary and Barry Church have come with a cost, but the rewards are much more plentiful.

For years this team has struggled to get a consistent pass rush on the opposing quarterback, but this season has given the team some hope as they’ve had two players standout - DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving. Lawrence entered Sunday’s game as the NFL’s sack leader with 13.5 sacks (recently passed by Chandler Jones with 14) and Irving has seven sacks on the year despite only playing eight games. These two have helped revamp the Cowboys defensive line, but unfortunately they will both be free agents this offseason leaving fans worried about the idea of suddenly losing them.

And then there is Anthony Hitchens who most fans don’t think too much about as a lot of what he does goes under the radar. He had an outstanding training camp as was thought to be a potential breakout player this season, but unfortunately a leg injury in preseason caused him to miss the first four games of the year. Hitchens is healthy now and he is coming off one of the best games in his career with 15 tackles against the Washington Redskins, followed up by a 14 tackle performance on Sunday.

When you look at these free agents, most fans try to rationalize which ones are worth keeping and which ones are expendable. Well, don’t do that. They are all worth keeping. These players aren’t middling performers that the team can afford to lose. These are players that have the talent and the mental know-how to perform well in this defense. It’s on full display and the Cowboys must retain them.

The question begs - how is it possible to keep all these guys? Well, the answer lies in the big savings the team got from letting free agents walk in the 2017 offseason. We counted about a 25 million difference in the price of departing free agents compared to the cost of their replacements. This money will be put into good use. Let’s take a look at the Cowboys salary cap situation heading into next season. It has been projected that the NFL Salary Cap will be somewhere in the range of $174 to $178 million in 2018. So for now, let’s roll with $176 million.

A couple things to note. First, the Cowboys have $9 million in rollover money from this season. Responsible spending this season will come in handy next season. Second, the team will have a dead money hit of almost $14 million, but most of that is from Tony Romo. During the 2018 season, all the remaining dead money from his contract will be absorbed and the team will be completely free and clear of his cost. All in all, that leaves the team with $26.8 million to work with in 2018.

That’s a decent amount of money to do some things in free agency. When you take into account the $17M it would cost the team to franchise tag Lawrence, well, a big chunk of it would be gone just like that. And that doesn’t even count the $6 million that will be needed to pay for the new draft class of rookies. So how is it the Cowboys will be able to afford their key free agents with so little extra spending money? Well, I’m glad you asked because I got it all laid out for you.

Extend Zack Martin

Notice Martin’s name hasn’t come up in this free agent talk. That’s because he’s not a free agent. He’s under contract in 2018 as the Cowboys picked up his fifth-year option. That also means that his $9.3 million salary is on the books already. Ideally, both Martin and the Cowboys would like to get a long-term deal done. The fact that they didn’t get something finalized during the summer is a good indication of how far apart both sides are. Our own Joseph Hatz did a great job explaining how Martin’s price could be a little higher than expected as he looks to be the highest paid guard in the NFL. He is estimating a deal worth five-year, $68 million extension with $35 million guaranteed. That averages out to $13.6 million per year.

While it’s not a hard sell to prove he’s worth every penny, will the Cowboys end up paying that much for him? Maybe. But there are also some reasons why it might not be quite that high. Martin is going to want to stay with this unit. He loves it in Dallas. He would also like to get a long-term deal rather than playing for his 2018 fifth-year option salary which the Cowboys could very well choose to do if they can’t come to an agreement. Without a long-term deal, Martin puts himself at risk should he get injured and even if he’s healthy, he’d have to hope that he isn’t franchise-tagged the season after that. It behooves his side to be a little flexible in the negotiations as well and he could end up signing an extension somewhere in the six-year, $72 million range.

But all that squabbling over a few extra million isn’t going to change the grand scheme of things in Dallas. Whether Martin’s price is $12, $13, or even $14 million a year, there are two important factors to remember. First, he’s staying in Dallas. No way, no how is he not deemed worth it and allowed to walk. Second, his 2018 cap hit will be reduced with an extension. If his deal is set up like Frederick’s, it will be restructure-friendly and only carry a 2018 cap-friendly hit of roughly $3 million. So just like that, the Cowboys will have an additional $6 million in cap space.

First-Round Tender David Irving

While the choice to extend Martin is the most obvious decision the Cowboys will make, placing a first-round tender on Irving is the next likely choice. He will be a restricted free agent and the team can slap a tender on him that would require a team give up a draft pick should they try to sign him. The higher the draft pick, the high the asking price of the tender. Because Irving is so valuable, he is worth placing a first-round tender to dissuade other teams from coming after him. This would mean he’d cost the team $4.1 million in 2018, but that’s a steal for what he gives you.

Franchise Tag DeMarcus Lawrence

DeMarcus Lawrence is having a phenomenal season. The timing couldn’t be better for him as he is set to be a free agent in the offseason. In a matter of a few months, Lawrence will be a rich man.

But will he be a Cowboy?

We’ve heard a lot of different opinions about this ranging from “he’s had just one good season” to “the Cowboys won’t be able to afford him.” Fortunately, both of these things are false. Lawrence has demonstrated he can make plays and this isn’t exclusive to this season. He was playing well in 2015 as well and really the only thing that has hindered his performance is his health (and a suspension). He’s been at full strength this season and suddenly has emerged as one of the league’s top pass rushers. And even when he’s not sacking the quarterback, he’s still being disruptive whether it’s making the quarterback throw the ball away or big stops in the run game. Bob Sturm recently explained why Lawrence isn’t just a one-year-wonder and how he’s been coming up big for the Cowboys defense ever since he stepped on the field.

Sturm would explain:

Nobody has generated more of these than Lawrence since he joined the team -- and it isn't close. You may tell me, "Bob, almost half of all of his splashes are in this 'contract year,'" and you would be correct. But what I highly disagree with is the premise that this is his first dominant year. His 2015 was dominant, too. He led the team that year as well. His 2014 and 2016 were the injured/suspension seasons and were a step down.

Lawrence is playing at a high level at a position that is critical to success in the National Football League. He is worth the money. The question now becomes - can the Cowboys afford him?

He is likely to prime target for the franchise tag. Typically, there are two main reasons to slap the franchise tag on a player. A team may choose to go that route in order to rent his services for another year to see if the player is truly worthy of a long term deal. The Cowboys did that with Anthony Spencer a few years ago and while costly at first, it saved them a lot of money in the long run as the team avoided getting trapped in an overpriced, long-term deal. Another reason to tag a player is to keep them from entering free agency while the team works a long-term deal. This was done with Dez Bryant a couple years ago. Players don’t like to be tagged because it doesn’t give them the long-term security in case they got hurt. Teams don’t like to tag because it comes with a high upfront cost against the salary cap and doesn’t solve their long-term problems.

Slapping the tag on him is a good place to start, but ultimately the team would like to get a long-term deal done with Lawrence. He’s only 25-years-old and should be a beast on the defensive line for several years to come so what will his asking price be? I have a hard time seeing him get J.J Watt money which equates to almost $17 million per year. Based on similar production, he could get a deal like what Cameron Jordan got a couple years ago, which was a around $11 million per year. While Jordan was more consistent throughout his first four years in the league, that still might be on the low side considering Lawrence is coming off a breakout season. Here is a list of the top paid defensive ends currently in the league so you can make your own guess on what you believe his asking price will be, but I’m going to take the average of a Watt/Jordan deal and guess his annual cost to be $14 million per year. A four-year, $56 million deal with a $16 signing bonus and close to $30 million guaranteed is what I’m projecting. This would be a comparable deal to All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn who had 19 sacks in the third year of his rookie deal.

If Lawrence plays under the tag price of $17 million, that entire amount will be applied to the Cowboys 2018 cap. If he works a long-term deal, his 2018 cap hit will be much less. With a signing bonus that allows the cap hit to be spread out throughout the duration of his contact, his 2018 cap hit may end up being roughly $7 million.

Now, let’s take a moment to do some math...

So with the Cowboys three most important offseason transactions taken care of, the team still has over $20 million to work with. Remember, $6 million needs to be saved for rookies, but that won’t come off the books until the summer. It’s important to note that the Cowboys have the funds necessary to pull this off because of the money they’ve saved from passing on re-signing some of their own free agents in seasons past. It’s also important to understand that the Cowboys will retain players they believe are worth the money. Young, talented players that they’ve brought up through the system are the foundation of this team and they won’t let these guys walk.

To be concluded...

Stay on the look out for the final installment of this three-parter where we examine how the Cowboys can shore up some key depth guys and put themselves in great position for next year’s draft.

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