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How The Cowboys Can Exchange Tony Romo For An Impact Pass Rusher In Free Agency

With Tony Romo’s salary eventually coming off the books, the Cowboys have some extra cash to go after a big name free agent.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

With Tony Romo a looming cap casualty, fans have been throwing out all kinds of trade scenarios that would allow the Cowboys to get something in return. Some are intriguing, others are preposterous. It would take the stars to align for the Cowboys to strike a deal that would land them something good, but the team can take matters in their own hands simply by exchanging some of that Romo cap money for high impact free agent.

And they don’t have to wait until later to make it happen.

The Dallas Cowboys currently sit $11 million over the 2017 salary cap. That's not a great spot to be in as the team enters free agency. With several of their own players set to hit the market, the Cowboys would hope to be able to keep some of the key contributors that have played a meaningful role in the team’s success over the last few years. On the surface, this would severely hinder the team’s ability to retain some of these players, let alone even think about bringing in an impact player from another team.

But that is just the surface and it goes much deeper than that.

You’ve probably heard people mention on numerous occasions about turning base salary into bonus money to free up cap room. That kind of stuff happens all the time. It’s not a magical trick that finagles cap money to give anyone a financial edge. The piper always gets paid. But it is a maneuver that many teams use to distribute the cost of a player over future years. That may sound like a way to get yourself in trouble if a team is mortgaging the future for present expenditures and that is certainly a valid concern.

The Cowboys front office is very judicious about how they approach this and have something going for them that makes this method less of a risk – great drafting. While you hear many people in the organization reiterate that they are building this team “through the draft” there are great financial implications from doing such. This has allowed the Cowboys to sign several talented players to very accommodating second contracts. These contracts are lengthy in terms and allow the team a lot of leniency in managing where the money goes. Each year the team can assess these contracts and constantly evaluate which players are reliable enough to restructure in order to move around cap space.

Of course, there is a downside to operating in this manner and K.D. Drummond explains it in simple way by stating:

“This process can bite a team when a player’s contract outweighs their usefulness”

And that is the key. Maintaining usefulness.

With a slew of All Pro players under contract to choose from, the Cowboys can be meticulous as to which contracts can be adjusted and which ones they leave alone. Dallas has many players that are very reliable. And with each new successful draft, they keep cycling in new reliable investments. Travis Frederick was the last big purchase they made and Zack Martin will soon be the next one.

Over the last seven drafts, the Cowboys are averaging 1.0 All Pros per year. That is remarkable. And it doesn’t even take into account players like Dak Prescott or Jaylon Smith. With the epic draft of 2016, the Cowboys are showing no sign of slipping when it comes to acquiring great talent.

So with that whole “moving money around” narrative rationalized, it’s time to examine why the Cowboys would be inclined to do such. There are a couple key points to make regarding the Cowboys cap situation. In 2017, the team is $11 million over budget, but things look much brighter in subsequent years with them currently having about $30 million in space in 2018 and $60 million in space in 2019. With the help of Spotrac, here are the team’s 13 most expensive cap hits for the next three seasons:

There are a few caveats to all these figures. First off, the future numbers are low right now because they don’t include new players that will be under contract by then (new rookies, Zack Martin’s new deal, re-signing their own free agent, etc.). But they are also low because players like Jason Witten and Doug Free won’t be on the books past 2017. Those two alone are a $20 million savings.

But the real savings comes from Tony Romo’s salary whose departure will be alleviating an astronomical cap hit. The Cowboys are saving a lot of money in future years by not having his salary count against the cap and you can see it’s almost a combined $50 million for 2018 and 2019. While his dead money hit is certainly steep right now, it opens up many new doors when it comes to cap availability.

And if there is any doubt about Romo’s future with the Cowboys, just examine these numbers (Spotrac):

The $5.1 million the team would save this year (dead money vs. cap hit) isn’t that big of a deal. If the Cowboys are just looking at 2017 alone, paying the extra $5 million would be worth biting the bullet to have such a valuable backup quarterback (of course, that’s also under the assumption that Romo would be willing to accept that role, which doesn’t seem likely). But then, the Cowboys would still be on the hook for the 2018 dead money hit of $8.9 million that they would likely absorb next offseason. So the decision to retain Romo doesn’t just cost them $5 million. It would ultimately cost them $14 million. That is way too much to pay to have him on the shelf for one season just in case something should happen to Prescott.

This strongly points to the forgone conclusion that Romo will not be with Dallas in 2017. While it’s depressing to think about, it will be bitter sweet because there is a lot of upside with all the money it will free up.

If the Cowboys want to re-sign any of their own free agents, they will. If there is a pricey free agent edge rusher that they feel would help them considerably, they have the funds to do that too. Money won’t be an issue. The issue will be whether or not they feel it is the right investment. And that’s the part that will leave some fans disappointed if they aren’t participants in the bidding war for some of the highly-coveted free agents. The Cowboys front office is disciplined and have come a long way in their ability to get good value out of their contracts and will stay the course to make sure they continue to do so. And while recent history would indicate that it would be a surprise if the Cowboys went out and laid down some big cash for a free agent acquisition, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Especially when they will be benefiting from some unexpected cap relief courtesy of the great uprising of their new franchise quarterback.

Make no mistake about it, the Cowboys having dancing chips. The question now becomes – will they dance?