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Salary cap breakdown: How the Cowboys can afford to keep Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper

The Cowboys new triplets are here to stay.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Right now is a quiet time in Cowboys Nation as we all anxiously away the start of training camp. Of course, that doesn’t stop Cowboys news from making the headlines, with one of the most heavily debated issues centering around the contract extensions looming for many of their star players. In particular, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper are nearing the end of the current deals, and many are wondering which player will get extended first?

The odd thing is that whenever someone throws out that question, the answers given typically are done in a way that devalues certain individuals to create a persona that they are somehow less important. And then there’s also this notion that the Cowboys organization somehow has to face a Sophie’s Choice moment and pick their absolute favorites because they inevitably can’t keep them all. Well, we’re here to tell you that all these players are extremely important and the Cowboys can in fact, keep them all.

A couple weeks ago, we wrote a piece about how a mega-million deal for Dak Prescott wouldn’t leave the Cowboys short of cash for other contracts. BTB member Northeast Cowboy had this to say...

Well, you talk and we listen.

Today, we’re going to dive in a little deeper and illustrate how the Cowboys can make this work. To kick things off, let’s just do a quick numbers check with the team’s current salary cap.

The Cowboys have the fifth-lowest dead money hit in the league with just $4 million, and they carried over $11 million of unused cap space from last year, leaving them $19 million in cap space right now. That’s a pretty good spot to be in considering they have 90 players under contract for the 2019 season. That means the team is likely to rollover another good chunk of cash into the 2020 season, freeing up yet even more cap space. And with the 2020 salary cap expected to reach $200 million, here is what things look like for next season.

It’s no secret that the Cowboys are one of the teams that will have the most cap space for the 2020 season, but don’t get too excited - that’s a little bit of a mirage. The Cowboys only have 55 players signed under contract for 2020, which means their cap space number is a little misleading due to many players being unaccounted for. The team has 20 players entering free agency next season who are starters or key role players on this team. We’ve grouped them into four categories, and estimated what their annual cost might be for their next contract.

Note: Some players are restricted free agents, and it is estimated that Jaylon Smith (first-round tender) and Blake Jarwin (original-round tender) will cost what their 2020 RFA tenders are set at. Some players are exclusive rights free agents (Antwaun Woods and Brett Maher) and their cost will be super cheap due to having two or less accrued seasons under their belt.

Now, keep in mind - new contracts come with a cheaper cap hit their first year so it’s not just a straight up dollar-for-dollar comparison of how much these prices affect the cap; however, we wanted to get a good feel for what the Cowboys can afford long-term. And that’s what we’re thinking here... long-term. Any team can manipulate the cap with new deals that free up cap space for that given year (cough, Philadelphia Eagles), but that guaranteed money doesn’t disappear. It all has to be accounted for eventually. Ultimately, the average annual salaries represent how much cap space they’ll take up if players make it through the duration of their contract.

If all the players from the “keepers” list are retained, they’ll still have $23.7 million of cap space left ($93 M - $69.3 M). That leaves them plenty of room to cover any big question marks they want to keep, a couple team-friendly veterans, and the new crop of rookies coming in. They can even carefully shop free agency like they do each offseason.

You might be asking yourself - where’s Zeke? Well, Elliott is under contract for 2020 for his fifth-year option price of $9 million, so he doesn’t show up as a free agent. When the team works his new deal, his annual cost will be around $15 million so leave room for a $6 million jump in price when you’re balancing your checkbook.

As you can see, the Cowboys have the room, and this doesn’t even include the first-year cap discount or the options to restructure other deals to free up space. It can be done. But the question is - should it be done? Is it sustainable to pay all these players so much money? Will it eventually catch up to them? Well, that depends on a few other factors, so let’s address them.

The team is getting great value on their contracts

If the team finds itself having to “trim the fat” and absorb dead money hits in order to get out of bad deals that seemed like good deals at the time, then those hits will add up. Dallas has been a victim of this penalty for years with heavy dead money hits, giving them a hidden disadvantage from year to year. But things are better now. Their investments include young players with high character so the return on their dividends are favorable. It’s taken the team a while to get to this point, but they’re finally there, so enjoy it.

You may find yourself pounding the table, exclaiming that Dak, Zeke, or Amari aren’t worth big money. Without a crystal ball, it’s hard to know the real answer to that, but it’s absolutely imperative that people remember this:

  • Quality NFL quarterbacks are hard to find and teams with bad ones suffer tremendously. The brain trusts at The Star believe that Prescott is one of the good ones.
  • Ezekiel Elliott is one of the absolute best at his position, and the Cowboys identity rests heavily on the effectiveness of that position.
  • The team invested precious draft capital hoping they could get a high character, route-disciplined, explosive playmaker for their quarterback. And that’s exactly what they got.

The team drafts extremely well

This team has really turned a corner when it comes to evaluating players as the Cowboys are one of the best drafting teams in the league. Between selecting All-Pro’s early in the draft to getting great contribution from players later in the draft, this team has demonstrated they can replenish talent year in and year out. Are you worried about this changing? If so, this could be a potential problem for the team’s cap down the road. However, if you believe in this team’s ability to draft well going forward, they will continue to be able to get quality contribution from young players on low-cost rookie deals. And that affords them the luxury of handing out big deals to their stars without it being felt along the depth of their football team.

The team is disciplined in free agency

Some fans get mad at the front office for not using all the tools at their disposal when it comes to team building, but the Cowboys continue to stay the course. Would it be great if the team found one of the few gems that slip through the cracks each year? You bet your bottom dollar it would, but the Cowboys don’t roll the dice on that as they know ultimately the odds aren’t favorable. They stay away from the house games and bet on themselves and their ability to draft and develop players. That’s a pretty smart strategy.

What are they saving their money for?

Since 2016, Tony Romo has cost a total of $40.4 million against the team’s cap. He threw four passes during that time. That’s over $10 million per pass attempt. It cannot be overstated of how wasteful that was.

Now, nobody expected the end of the Romo era to come so quickly and the emergence of Prescott played a big role in that, but the Cowboys reacted quickly and pulled the trigger on moving on from Romo. And they ripped the band aid off quickly with Dez Bryant as well. While these decisions came with consequences in the form of dead money hits, the team ultimately saved a lot of money for their future. And here we are, in the future.

We should all appreciate the sacrifices made in seasons past that allow the Cowboys to be in the position they’re in. They now have the money to keep the talent they want to keep. Making tough decisions to let players like Ron Leary, Anthony Hitchens, and Cole Beasley walk aren’t fun, but they’re necessary. However, what you don’t want to do is to let star players walk. People will say, “if we pay so-and-so big money, then we won’t be able to afford good players later.” That’s fair, but why would the team pass on paying one star to save money for a star that hasn’t arrived yet? The Cowboys already did the hard part in drafting and developing; now’s the easy part - just write the check.

Acquiring good players isn’t easy. Just look at the mess the New York Giants are in. They struggle finding good players in the draft, so they’re left supplementing their roster by overspending in free agency. And to no surprise - they’re terrible at that too.

The Cowboys aren’t in the business of letting talent escape them, so it is puzzling to think they’d be willing to not pay Dak, Zeke, or Amari. Sure, they’ll be prioritized, but that has more to do with timing and not value to the team. They’re all valuable.

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