The scary reality here is that the Cowboys will no sooner get out from under Tony Romo’s big contract then they probably have to get into a new one with Prescott. The last Romo’s dead money, $8.9 million, finally drops off after 2018.
We know how Romo’s cap hits, both while still playing and even after his release, have limited the Cowboys in free agency. That is an unnerving prospect for the future once Dak Prescott gets his next deal.
No, it is not. While there is no doubt that Prescott is in line for a major payday if he can return to the form he displayed for the first season and a half with Dallas, that is hardly going to cripple the team. And it is not just because the whole idea of “cap hell” is largely a myth. All teams have the same cap limitations to deal with, and if they are at all successful, they are going to be paying their quarterback really big bucks. No, it is because the Cowboys have something now they have not really had for a long time: Plenty of cap space.
Of course, this probably isn’t news to most of you if you have been reading BTB for a while. I covered this back in April. There have been some changes, most importantly the contract extension for Zack Martin. That has eaten into the projected cap space for 2019 - but it still sits at over $50 million, based upon all current contracts. (All figures from Over the Cap.) And Martin’s new contract boosted the space for this year, which currently sits at over $14.8 million. Dallas has space to do just about whatever it wants this season without having to do any more “kicking the can down the road”, and that would include working out a trade for Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas. Any unused space from this year will roll over into the next, so that $50 million for next year could well increase.
And the primary impact of a Prescott extension would come in 2020 and after. At the moment, the current contracts the Cowboys have that extend that far (including Martin’s) leave them with a projected space that year of nearly $105 million.
That’s a lot of room to work out new deals for Prescott as well at DeMarcus Lawrence, who is playing this year on the franchise tag unless and until the Cowboys negotiate an extension with him. Most of the other players the team will eventually have to pay or part ways with don’t come into play until after 2020.
The concern expressed in the article quoted above seems as much a conditioned reflex as any kind of real evaluation of the situation. We have been hearing about cap problems for the Cowboys for so long, it seems hard to imagine the team being in a situation where it can be prepared for a possible deal with a star player like Thomas, a new, long-term deal for a franchise tagged edge rusher, and the cost for the expected starting quarterback for the next decade or more, plus all the other contracts that have to be handled without having to resort to restructures and other cap acrobatics. But that is just what we have now. Instead of seeing Dallas down at the bottom of the cap space list, they sit comfortably in the top half (currently they have the 13th most space in the NFL, and are less than $150,000 behind the 11th ranked Arizona Cardinals).
One of the big changes that has gotten the Cowboys to this point is that they are no longer hanging onto players whose production does not justify their paychecks. That is a large part of what happened with Dez Bryant. The Jason Witten retirement, while not something the team seemed to want, also freed up a lot of space. But the bottom line is that the team is making better financial decisions while still focusing on the quality of play on the field.
Things can change rapidly as the team will be trying to figure out which younger players to keep when they come up on the end of their rookie deals and when it needs to dip into the free agent market. But after years of having to use a lot of creativity in contracts and restructures, the personnel department of the Cowboys has gotten things nicely in hand and will hopefully keep it that way. Stephen Jones probably deserves the most credit.
More importantly, Dallas bet for years that the salary cap would continue to rise and that they could do those restructures without overly limiting themselves in the future. That bet paid off. And the team always looked at cap space as not doing much for you if you did not convert it into players on the field. It is worth noting that the Cleveland Browns have the most cap space in the league this year, and have been at or near the top of this list for several seasons now. There is only one real reason to have over $70 million in space, and that is to not have the talent on your roster to justify using more.
That is not the situation with the Cowboys, and they now have the key trio of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin all locked up through 2022. The coming deal with Prescott should eat up a large chunk of the cap space - but it is hardly going to cripple the team.
Cap management is a bit different now for Dallas. Don’t focus on the issues of the past. Look at what is happening now, and don’t imagine problems that just aren’t there.