There has been a lot of talk about the Dallas Cowboys front office and their approach to handling long-term deals with their own players. Whether a player gets signed or not, the front office has the tendency to drag the negotiations out to the last minute, creating all kinds of frustration among Cowboys Nation.
And while those situations can be bothersome to endure, when the dust settles - more times than not the Cowboys end up with a pretty solid future investment. Of course, that claim has been heavily debated depending on how much we like an individual player and what we believe their value is; however, one thing that should be somewhat agreeable is how the front office structures these contracts to maximize the value they receive from their players.
Today, we’re going to take a close look at the eight most expensive players on the Cowboys who still remain under contract after the upcoming season. So, that unfortunately won’t include Dak Prescott as he’s playing under the one-year franchise tag price of $31.4 million, nor will it include Tyrone Crawford who, as of now, will be a $9.1 million cap hit in 2020. Both of these players will be unrestricted free agents after this season.
To examine these contracts, I want to introduce a new term I created called - adjusted cost. Normally, it can be difficult to assign a cost to a player. Average salary is a very general approach, and can be accurate should a player play through his entire deal, but it’s a little misleading. Contracts are often designed to be back-loaded with the option to cut loose early, so the average salary figure is a bit lazy. And that is where adjusted cost comes in.
Adjusted cost keeps it real. It ignores the variance of individual yearly cap hits and always takes into consideration the guaranteed money that a player will receive whether it comes in the form of: guaranteed annual salary, signing bonus, or a restructure bonus that has been used to free up cap space. In essence, guaranteed money ALWAYS has to be accounted for, and there is no way of getting around it. Adjusted cost understands that and keeps a running tally.
For a quick little rundown of how adjusted cost is calculated, we’ll use DeMarcus Lawrence’s contract as an example. For each given year you want to evaluate, you first sum the cap hits up to that season and add the dead money hit associated should he not play the following season (green values below) to get a total cost (yellow). Then, you just divide that total cost by how many years of that contract he’s played. That gives you an adjusted cost per year (blue).
Initially, the adjusted cost is high because there is so much guaranteed money owed. The longer a player plays, the more of that guaranteed money comes off the books, and it starts to flatten out to a value that is a better representation of the team’s average annual cost for that player.
So, when we go through the contracts below, be mindful of three values: cap hit, dead money hit, and adjusted cost. Cap hit and dead money are important because they offer up a “cut him or keep him” comparison. The team has a choice to keep them for their yearly cap hit or release them and absorb the respective dead money hit. Those are real time implications of what the organization does, but regardless - there is always going to be a corresponding adjusted cost associated with that player. In short, it represents the average cost to the team if a player played through that season and nothing more.
Deal: Signed an eight-year, $97.6 million extension in 2014
Smith’s deal will go down as one of the greatest bargains in Cowboys history. A first-round draft pick (ninth overall) in 2011, it didn’t take long for the organization to learn that he was going to be their star left tackle. Three years into his five-year rookie deal (after the team exercised his fifth-year option), the Cowboys dangled a super long term deal in front of him, and he accepted.
Note: The teal color shows the transition of when a team can judiciously consider an early release due to a more reasonable dead money hit. Appropriately, it corresponds to when the adjusted cost starts to flatten out. Players who regularly contribute and make it to that point in their contract are typically perceived as a good value contract. Anything beyond that is big win for the team.
Most of Smith’s bonus/restructure money has already been accounted for on the cap, so the team can release him any time they want with minimal penalty. But why would they? Even at a larger back-loaded base salary in the later years of his deal, Smith remains worth every penny of his yearly cap hit. When it’s all said and done, the Cowboys will have ultimately saved a ridiculous amount of money for one of the game’s best left tackles.
Deal: Signed a six-year, $84 million extension in 2018
Probably the first example of Cowboys fan exhibiting frustration with the front office was when Zack Martin played through his four-year rookie deal, but hadn’t yet signed him to a long-term deal. The stud guard was (and still has been) an All-Pro every year he’s been in the league, so what else did he have to prove? Well, nothing. And the front office knew that and the team was able to agree to a long-term deal in the summer of 2018.
With each new year, this contract looks better and better as the team is getting more than their money’s worth with the level of performance Martin provides. It didn’t take long for the “paying a guard top money is wasteful” theory to be long forgotten as Martin’s deal is pure brilliance.
Deal: Signed a five-year, $105 million deal in 2019
There’s an old saying in Tennessee, probably in Texas too that if you tag me once, shame on you. The point is - if you tag me, you can’t get tagged again.
Okay, so maybe that’s not a saying, but that’s the message Tank sent when he threatened to hold off his shoulder surgery until a long-term deal could be reached. It worked. Lawrence got his $100+ million deal in April of last offseason, making him the highest paid Cowboys player in franchise history.
The Cowboys are still committed to him for the next two seasons before it would be financially feasible to cut him loose, should things go awry. But that is not likely to happen as Lawrence is in his prime and despite some skeptics - he performs at a high level. There’s still a lot of good things left in his tank, and with the rising price of premiere edge rushers (like say, Myles Garrett’s five-year, $125 M deal), the team should still feel pretty good about Lawrence’s deal.
Deal: Signed a six-year, $68.4 million extension in 2019
Believe it or not, but the first of the Cowboys 2016 draft picks who was re-signed ended up being a guy who didn’t even suit up this rookie season due to a serious knee injury suffered in his last collegiate game. Despite playing in just two seasons, the Cowboys moved quick to re-up on him following an impressive 2018 campaign.
But as great as the jump was from year one to year two, Smith didn’t play at the same level this past season. Granted, he did end up with 142 total tackles and even sneaked into the Pro Bowl, but his lackluster performance has some fans questioning if he’s worth the money now.
The answer is - I don’t know, and I don’t care. Allow me to explain why...
On the surface, this is one of the most cringe worthy deals of this bunch, which is more of a testament to just how well the front office has done with other deals and not actually a knock on Smith. The beauty of this one is that the Cowboys are holding all the cards. Playing through this season, Smith basically transforms into a $9 million annual investment with the potential to get to ten if he performs throughout his career.
After the upcoming season, the Cowboys can opt out any time they want. If he works out, great - the team can justify the cost. If not, the team could choose to go another direction, and that direction may be to give Leighton Vander Esch a long-term contract as his rookie deal (with fifth-year option) expires after the 2022 season.
Even when the Cowboys appeared to jump the gun in signing a player prematurely, this one is still okay, with the upside being a huge bargain in the future if Smith ends up taking the next step to stardom.
Deal: Signed a five-year, $50 million extension in 2019
Smith wasn’t the only surprise signing right before the start of last season as the Cowboys retained the services to La’el Collins for an additional five years, making him a Cowboy through the 2024 season. Opposite to Jaylon Smith, Collins was rather meh in 2018, which is why a lot of us believed his days in Dallas were numbered.
The front office had other plans as they saw something they liked in LC and decided to re-invest. And in a matter of just one season, this head-scratching move now has the appearance of being a ridiculous value for the team as Collins is coming off his best season as a pro.
Similar to Smith, the Cowboys will be locked in to a steady adjusted cost for Collins starting this season. But unlike the uncertainty of Smith, this deal has a great chance of standing the test of time, resulting in big-time savings.
Note: You can always tell which players the front office feels the safest about because they’re the ones who get their base salary converted to bonus money, which is exactly what they did to LC in March.
Signed a six-year, $90 million extension in 2019
The Cowboys made Zeke the highest paid running back in the league last offseason, which didn’t go over so well for some fans. We’re not going to spend any time debating on whether it’s wise to invest a lot of money in the running back position because that argument is subjective. Instead, we’re going to focus on two things - does Elliott produce, and did the Cowboys front office protect themselves should he wear down? And the answer to those questions are - yes and yes.
Even though Elliott got a six-year extension, the Cowboys really only extended him one extra year following his rookie deal that included a fifth-year option. What that means is that the Cowboys can get out of this deal any time they want after the 2021 season, which is before he turns 27 years old. There is absolutely no risk here unless you believe he is going to fade into oblivion before the next two seasons are up.
Instead, what’s more likely to happen is that Zeke keeps grinding out yards and helps this Cowboys offense be fantastic. And when you look at the money Christian McCaffrey is now making and looming deals for players like Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara, that adjusted cost for Zeke is going to keep looking better and better.
Signed a five-year, $100 million deal in 2020
The Cowboys used a first-round draft pick to acquire Cooper from the Oakland Raiders in 2018, and they validated that decision by extending him to a long-term deal this offseason. People will debate his actual worth, but he has a good résumé, posting 1,000+ yard seasons in four of his first five years in the league (earning Pro Bowl honors in each of those).
Cooper’s critics point out his disappearing acts at certain points. That’s fair. He also has been labeled “injury prone” and while it’s true he’s endured some nagging injuries throughout his career, he’s only missed a total of three games in five seasons.
He’s still a young player and the team has given themselves an out after the 2021 season, which just so happens to be when Michael Gallup hits free agency. And of course, they just nabbed a potential young star in CeeDee Lamb. While we don’t know how the makeup of this wide receiver group will ultimately play out, we do know this - the Cowboys are sitting in great shape at the position, and that is a sharp contrast to where they were just two short years ago.
Signed a three-year, $18.3 million deal in 2020
The Cowboys front office actually threw cap resources at some outside free agents this offseason, with the most notable one being veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. At 32-years-old, there is clearly some risk involved, but as you can see from the adjusted cost values for each year - the risk is rather minimal.
Whether the Cowboys release him after one year, two years, or let him play through the entire contract - his cost is reasonable. The team can evaluate the situation each year to see if he’s worth it, but unless he suffers an injury or suddenly just stops performing, the Cowboys should be getting a good deal here.