Along with free agency, the new league year kicks off in a little over three weeks. By 4:00 pm New York time on March 9, all NFL clubs must be under the 2017 salary cap. As it currently stands, the Cowboys are about $11 million over the cap, so they've got some housekeeping to do to get under the cap by March 9.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell has laid out a five-point offseason plan for each NFC East team, and we'll take a look at what he proposes for the Cowboys.
Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas was recently asked whether being $11 million over the cap was a reason for concern. His answer:
Two swipes of the pen and they're under https://t.co/2LULh4okkZ— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) February 8, 2017
Barnwell suggests three swipes of the pen under the contracts of Crawford, Frederick, and Smith, which in sum will create $23.3 million in 2017 cap space. Good move.
2. Make a decision on Tony Romo.
Barnwell writes that the Cowboys are "not going to carry Romo on their roster with a $24.7 million cap hit for 2017." From a cap point of view, there are basically two ways to move forward. The Cowboys could either take a $19.6 million hit in 2017 if they cut or trade Romo (or if he retires), thereby creating $5.1 million in cap space, or they could make Romo a June 1 cut, which would spread Romo's cap hit over two years and create $12 million in cap space in 2017.
The Cowboys are looking to get some value out of Romo, and recent reports suggest the Cowboys could get as much as a 2nd-round pick for Romo, so they'll likely be looking to swing a trade within the next three weeks. If they succeed, they'll create $5.1 million in cap space.
3. Work out an extension for Jason Witten.
Witten recently told Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News that he plans to play in 2017 but doesn't expect to sign a contract extension this offseason. Barnwell expects the Cowboys to tack on a couple of years to Witten's deal anyway, thus creating an additional $6 million in cap space this year.
Witten may not have plans to play beyond 2017, but adding a couple of (voidable) years to his contract makes sense from a cap point of view, and $6 million of cap space is nothing to sneeze at.
4. Pick up Zack Martin's fifth-year option.
No cap savings here, but a good move any way you look at it. Barnwell explains:
Martin, arguably the best guard in football, will be a bargain for the final time in 2017 at a cap hit of $2.9 million. His salary will rise to $8.5 million or so in 2018, and the Cowboys probably will give him one of their patented eight-year extensions.
5. Resist the temptation to bring back all of their secondary.
Stephen Jones recently said he'd like to re-sign the entire secondary.
Stephen Jones said he'd like to re-sign Carr, Claiborne, Church and Wilcox. He also said he'd like to bring back receivers Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, both of whom are also unrestricted free agents.
"All those are guys we'd like to sign," Stephen Jones said. "You got to make it all work. And sometimes as we all know, you don't get to sign them all back. That doesn't mean you don't try."
But Barnwell is having none of that, suggesting the Cowboys move on from both Brandon Carr (age) and Morris Claiborne (injury), and instead bring back Barry Church (versatility) and move Byron Jones (value) to corner in a re-tooled secondary. No specific cap savings here.
Overall, the moves outlined by Barnwell would create $34.4 million in cap space and drop the Cowboys to around $24 million below the 2017 salary cap.
That's more than enough money for the Cowboys to go out and get themselves a War Daddy in free agency, and still have enough money left over to re-tool their secondary. And if they did that, they'd have addressed their biggest needs in free agency, which would put them in position to draft the best players regardless of position - which is just the way they like it, as Jason Garrett explained a few years ago:
“One of the things we did in free agency is we tried to address some of the perceived needs on this team. The goal on the draft is to draft the best player available. All teams have that goal. Some times you are able to achieve that and sometimes not. So hopefully by the time we get to end of April we will be in that position. We will pick the guys we think are the best guy for our football team.”