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Who might the Cowboys cut if they want to save money?

Salary trimming isn’t just an end of season exercise. It’s also something done as the team prepares for the coming season. It’s way too early to do this now, but let’s speculate anyway.

Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys
James Hanna

While writing the series on down roster battles, I had the chance to look at the contracts of many of the players on the bubble. Often, a player’s contract tended to dictate whether he was likely to remain with the team, or was eligible for some roster trimming. Let’s revisit the issue and identify if there are any less-than-essential players who might allow Dallas to save money for future contracts of stars like Zack Martin, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and others. Some of those guys might be several years off from renewal, but since unused cap money carries over to the following year, it never hurts to save in the present as long as it won’t hurt the team’s performance.

Here are some possibilities, ranked by amount of potential savings.

One note before we proceed. If a player has a higher dead cap hit in 2017 than their cap hit this year, we are presuming they are not eligible for the scrap heap. This includes:

  • Dez Bryant - cap hit $17,000,000; dead cap $25,000,000.
  • Tyrone Crawford - cap hit $10,350,000, dead cap $17,650,000.
  • Orlando Scandrick - cap hit $5,281,000; dead cap $6,162,000.
  • Cedric Thornton - cap hit $4,250,000; dead cap $6,750,000.
  • Nolan Carroll - cap hit $2,000,000; dead cap $3,000,000.

The Cowboys could still spread one of these players’ dead cap over two years and save money, but it’s much more likely the team will carry each of them for at least another year, until the dead cap becomes less than the year’s cap hit.

James Hanna - potential savings $5 million over two years

Signed for two more years at $6.5 million, his dead cap this year would be $1.5 million. The Cowboys couldn’t save all of that, as another tight end will cost something. But Geoff Swaim makes $618K and Rico Gathers makes $465K.

If healthy, Hanna is certainly better than Geoff Swaim, but the question is whether he’ll return at full strength. The type of bone bruise injury he suffered may have been similar to the one Anthony Spencer endured. Spencer returned, but he wasn’t the same player that he was before the injury. This may come down to whether Rico Gathers is ready to lay some wood as a blocker this year and push Hanna down the depth chart.

Chances of being cut? 40%

Alfred Morris - potential cap savings of $1.637 million

This is the second year of Morris’s contract. His dead cap would be $500K if he’s let go. With Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden both complete backs being ahead of him, and Morris having no real value as a receiving back or on special teams, Morris is likely being kept on the roster as insurance against injury to Zeke and DMC, because neither Rod Smith nor Jahad Thomas are likely more than just emergency options should they make the team.

Chances of being cut? 90%

Chris Jones - potential savings $1.5M this year.

There are no indications that Chris Jones’ job is at risk this year. After all, he’s more than just a punter. He’s a safety.

And only Zeke had rushing plays longer than Jones carried this fake punt.

Chances of being cut? 1%

Stephen Paea - potential cap savings of $1.4M

Paea received a signing bonus of $500,000 on a $1.9M dollar one-year deal. He’s hoping to revive his career under Rod Marinelli, who coached him to his best years on the Bears. He’ll have to step up and show his value, with seventh-rounders Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell both vying for his job.

Chances of being cut? 30%

Kyle Wilber - potential savings $1.25M this year.

In the last year of a two-year extension, Wilber has a cap hit of $1.75M and a dead cap of $500K. He played only 49 snaps on defense, or 5%, with Damien Wilson taking over the SAM job. Yet he makes plays on special teams, and the Cowboys are not deep behind their top four - Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Jaylon Smith. And now Wilson’s future is in question.

Chances of being cut? 20%

Jonathan Cooper - potential savings $1.165M this year.

Most expect Cooper to have a slight edge in the competition for starting left guard this year over Chaz Green, Byron Bell, and perhaps even Joe Looney. His draft pedigree is higher than any of the Cowboys’ three All-Pro linemen. He just hasn’t realized his potential, or fully recovered from the injuries he suffered in Arizona, three teams ago. If he ends up second to one of the other guards, he might also be kept for Joe Looney’s role as backup interior lineman on game day. So the odd of him being cut are not high. But if he busts, as he did in New England and Cleveland after he left Arizona, he could be let go.

Chances of being cut? 10%

Byron Bell - potential savings $1.075M this year

Bell has already received a $250,000 signing bonus, and he’s picked up a $150,000 bonus for making weight. He can earn another $300,000 if he can continue to make weight through training camp and pre-season. This is still a bargain deal for a veteran who can play both tackle and guard, given the injury histories of Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper, and even La’el Collins, who missed most of last season.

Chances of being cut? 20%

Brice Butler - potential savings $800K

This is not enough financial savings to be a factor in Butler being cut from the team. The bigger issue is whether Butler’s present value is higher than Noah Brown’s potential value over the next four years to keep the Cowboys from risking trying to get Brown to the practice squad. Butler’s problem is he has the lowest catch percentage on the team at 50%. Yet he did help the Cowboys win games when Dez Bryant was out last year, and is still young enough to have upside.

Chances of being cut? 25%

That’s not a lot of potential savings. James Hanna has the biggest contract that might be cut, but the odds that he will be are likely under 50%. Only Alfred Morris is likely to get the axe.

There are other players who might go, but their salaries are enough under $1M that it won’t save Dallas any money to cut them, because someone will have to take that space on the roster. This includes Lucky Whitehead, Rod Smith, Emmett Cleary, Richard Ash, Mark Nzeocha, John Lotuelei, Leon McFadden, and Robert Blanton.

One final note - on Jason Witten. Witten has a huge cap hit this year - $12,262,000 - because all the restructures have finally come due. The Cowboys re-signed him this offseason for four more years, each with a $6.5M cap hit, set up with declining base salaries and increased roster bonuses. This is so they can get cap savings in future years by converting salary to bonus and stretching it over the four years. Is Jason Witten still worth this salary? Maybe. One thing’s for certain: whatever Witten’s cap hit is, the Cowboys are never going to cut him. They are going to let him retire on his own terms.

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