Remember when the Dallas Cowboys had to restructure just about every contract on the books to get the cap space they needed to do much of anything this time of year? Even bringing in a third-tier free agent or re-signing a cheap role player from your own would leave them shuffling the “funny money” the cap uses to get things done.
My, how things have changed. The team has not even had to consider that “kicking the can down the road” so far this offseason, despite the rash of signings over the past couple of weeks, plus the trade for Robert Quinn. They may still have to do something if they want to work on any extensions outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, but for now, they still have space to handle the draft class with a little left over.
But wait until next year. Although the total cap space is just a projection at this point, we do know what teams currently have committed in 2020 contracts. That shows something you aren’t used to seeing.
The Cowboys have the most projected cap space in the league. By a considerable margin. And brace yourself for this: The 2020 cap is estimated to rise to $200 million at Over the Cap. If that is correct (and OTC has been good at this in recent years), then based on current contracts, Dallas will have - brace yourself - $116 million in cap space.
Need to pay Lawrence $23 million plus per year? No problem. Have to commit $30 million or more to Dak Prescott? Step right up. Amari Cooper needs $17 mil or so? Byron Jones is in line for a ton? Still need to feed Ezekiel Elliott? No sweat. All can get their market value, and the team can fit it into that space with no problem - and we haven’t even looked at back-loading to reduce the hit in the near term.
This is no accident, either. This is an easily discerned strategy. Look at the contracts the team has completed so far this offseason:
Three-year deals: One
Two-year deals: One
One-year deals (including Lawrence’s unsigned tag): Eleven
The key bit of information to derive from that: One-year contracts, by definition, use up only the current year cap space. By mostly sticking with those one-year deals, the staff has kept next year’s cap space cleared for the multiple big deals they are looking to work out with their core star players. They could have the option of re-signing any of the “temp” players if one or more of them really stand out (Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington are a couple of names to watch), but most of them will move on. If they do have a good year in Dallas, then the team is poised to reap future compensatory picks.
It is a pretty remarkable job of having their cake and eating it, too. This is, on paper at least, one of the most impressive free agent (plus trade) groups for the Cowboys in recent memory, with Quinn and Randall Cobb the obvious headliners. The hires have been made for a very low cost in both real cash and salary cap terms. And it has not tied the team down with contracts that are hard to get out of due to dead money costs. Somehow they did pretty much go all in for this season while not overpaying in free agency, and planned for the future.
It never hurts to be lucky, of course, and Dallas did have some good fortune. There was a bit of a glut in the safety market, which got them a better player in George Iloka than they might have managed in other years for the money they wound up committing to him. And Quinn represents a whole sequence of things: He was caught by a scheme change that made him less valuable to a a Miami Dolphins team that was blatantly tanking, and now wants to use the cap space and real dollars he would have cost the team elsewhere. Doing a one-year deal for a reduced cost is attractive to Quinn as he now has a chance to show he deserves one last payday - once the Cowboys are done with his discount year.
What is most remarkable is that they accumulated that huge future cap space while very successfully growing their own via the draft. Although if you look at it from a different angle, it may be more about where the roster is for Dallas than anything. They have an unusual number of players on their rookie deals who have proven to be very good. Several of these (Lawrence, Prescott, Elliott, Jones, and Cooper) are coming due now. But the team has all the space it needs to get all of them done, even at the top of the market for their positions, without being in any bind.
Just a few years ago, the term “cap hell” was used by many in talking about the Cowboys. They were said to be stuck booting that empty food tin down the highway with no end in sight. If you ever needed proof that cap hell is largely a myth, and many if not most who write about the NFL have no real understanding of how the cap and contracts work, that is it.
It did take several years to get all this in place, and past bad moves made it harder. The staff, in particular Stephen Jones, learned from those mistakes. Setting up this looming pile of cap space just when the team has so many contracts it needs to get done to keep its own stars is a masterful bit of management.
This is also one more reason to have some optimism that the Lawrence situation will be worked out. There is no reason from a financial or cap perspective to not pay him. And with the cap almost certainly to continue going up under the new CBA (if it still has a cap, which the NFLPA would like to torpedo, but probably can’t), things just look very bright for Dallas, at least in this particular area.