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Preparing for the Dak Prescott tag: Which contracts makes the most sense to restructure for the Cowboys

The time for moving money around is approaching, but what players are likely to be restructured?

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

March 9th, 2021 - mark your calendars, folks.

In three weeks, the Dallas Cowboys will likely lay down their first discard as they play the seemingly never-ending game of “What are we going to do with Dak Prescott?” That card should come in the form of the franchise tag. We suspect the team would like to avoid having to tag him and just get a deal done before then, but if history serves as any evidence, the chances of that happening don’t seem all that great.

So, slap us silly with a double-dip of the franchise tag at a price of $37.7 million for the 2021 season. The Cowboys don’t have $37.7 million. I mean, they do, stuffed underneath Jerry Jones’ Tempur-Pedic mattress I presume, but in terms in cap space, they don’t. Currently, the Cowboys have roughly $27.7 million of cap space according to the figures provided by Spotrac.

That means for the Cowboys to be able to tag Dak, they need to free up some additional cap space, and it’s not just Prescott they need to make room for. They’ll need to sign a new crop of rookie draft picks (roughly $10 million), plus whatever they plan on spending in free agency. Realistically speaking, the Cowboys need to find a way to create an additional $30 million in cap space to comfortably give them room to operate with Prescott’s tag price on the books for the upcoming season. Should they finalize a long-term deal later, that would free up quite a bit of space itself, most of which will just be carried over into next season. But for now, they need to move some money around.

The Cowboys can save a little bit of money by outright releasing players. We touched on a few cap casualty candidates last month. Most of the cap space they need is going to come in the form of contract restructures. For those not really familiar with salary cap bookkeeping, one might ask...

What is the point of restructuring a player’s contract?

It’s simple, to save money right now.

NFL teams just convert some of a player’s base salary into bonus money. This removes the base salary from the current year’s cap hit and spreads it out evenly over the course of a set time. So if a team wants to convert $10 million of a players base salary into a restructure bonus over five years, that $10 million hit turns into an additional $2 million hit over five seasons. This ultimately saves the team $8 million in cap space for the current season and tacks that cost onto subsequent years of the contract.

How much can be restructured?

Almost all of it.

The base salary can be reduced all the way down to the acceptable league minimum salary. For veterans who have accrued four to six seasons that minimum salary is $910,000. For seven years or more the minimum salary is $1,050,000. Teams may choose to just take a chunk of the base salary off the books vs. most of it so added future cap costs aren’t so significant.

What players should teams restructure?

There are no hard set rules, but most restructures have many commonalities. To start with, teams looking to save big will first look to those players who have the highest base salary for the current year. Another key element is how confident the front office is in that player’s ability to perform for an extended period of time. Teams don’t want to push money out on players who aren’t living up to expectations because it increases future dead money hits. Declining players or injury-prone players do not make good restructure candidates.

So, who should the Cowboys restructure?

Whether they’re looking for big savings or to cut cost a little here and there, let’s just focus on the players who have a base salary of at least $5 million for the upcoming season.

Starting at the top and working our way down, let’s see which of these player’s contracts make the most sense to restructure. (Note: some of the shorter length deals will push yearly restructure costs into voidable years of the contract)

AMARI COOPER

The Cowboys just signed Cooper to a five-year, $20 million deal last offseason. After having a first year cap hit of just $12 million last year, he’s on the books for $22 million in each of the next four years. The team could save a bunch of money with the following type of restructure.

While that alone would solve a lot of the cap issues for the upcoming season, the team may choose to only restructure half of it to keep future costs a little lower. A more conservative restructure would look like this:

Should the Cowboys do it?

Most definitely. It’s hard to see a scenario where Cooper’s deal isn’t restructured to at least some degree. If people still had doubts about him this time last year before he was re-signed, those apprehensions should be fading. The guy is a very talented receiver and should still have plenty of great years ahead of him.

DEMARCUS LAWRENCE

Lawrence signed his five-year, $105 million deal in 2019, and already converted $15 million of his 2020 base salary to free up cap space last year. An additional restructure could look something like this:

Restructuring Tank definitely clears up some nice room. Lawrence is actually extremely valuable to the team, and when it comes to health and performance, restructuring him shouldn’t be a worry.

The issue with doctoring his contract is that the team would be putting quite a heavy cap hit on him for subsequent years. He’s already on the books for $25M (2021), $27M (2022), and $29M (2023). Adding an additional $3M from another restructure bonus puts a lot of cap burden onto one player.

Should the Cowboys do it?

No. A Lawrence restructure should serve only as a “break glass if needed” scenario. The team needs to be cautious about pushing out too much money from one player into the future. The Cowboys got burned with Travis Frederick as he was restructured in consecutive years, but then shortly thereafter was diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome. Just like that the team went from having one of he safest investments to taking on a huge dead money hit. The front office can’t control things like that, but they can choose not to put all their eggs into one basket.

ZACK MARTIN

The Cowboys restructured Martin last year, which converted $10 million of his base salary into bonus, clearing $8 million in space. If they went after Zack again this year, it should look essentially identical:

Martin is arguably the team’s most talented player on the roster, and despite being 30-years-old, he’s every bit as good as he was at a sprightly 25. He has endured some injuries in recent years, but nothing concerning enough to think he’s not going to be a part of the team’s future for the next several years.

Should the Cowboys do it?

Yes. It’s not the most ideal situation, but it feels relatively safe. The chances of any part of his contract resulting in dead money is slim to none.

TYRON SMITH

Smith’s contract has been restructured four times already as he possesses one of the most cap-friendly deals in team history. Even with all his restructured money added to his yearly cap cost, Smith remains a great bargain for the Cowboys. Should they pull the trigger again, it should look like this:

Sure, there’s a little chunk to be saved here, but Smith’s injury history has pushed him out of the mix as being a good restructure candidate. He’s missed action in five straight seasons, including only playing in two games last year, Smith’s health has become a dicey ordeal for this Cowboys team.

Should the Cowboys do it?

No. At this point, we’re just hoping he holds up to finish out the last three years remaining on his deal and any additional restructuring is just playing with fire.

EZEKIEL ELLIOTT

Elliott had to holdout to get his six-year, $90 million extension in 2019. The contract was carefully constructed with most of his guaranteed money off the books after the 2022 season. This means the Cowboys have an opportunity to get out from this deal by the time he turns 28 years old. Should they choose to restructure, the cost of opting out rises a bit. A Zeke restructure would look something like this:

It’s not a lot of cap savings, but it’s also not a lot of added cost down the road. There are some that question Elliott’s effectiveness, and he’s got a lot miles on him, despite being just 26 years old.

Should the Cowboys do it?

Yes. A restructure of this size isn’t anything concerning, and whether Elliott makes it through the entire duration of his deal or not, he’s still not going anywhere anytime soon.

LA’EL COLLINS

Like many players listed above, Collins contract was restructured last season, freeing up $4 million in cap space. It wasn’t much, and it won’t be much of a burden in the future. Should the Cowboys do that again, it would look very similar.

It seems like only yesterday that Collins was viewed as a huge bargain as his $10 million annual salary is a great deal for what he gives them on the field. Unfortunately, he never saw the field last year as he was shut down early to undergo hip surgery. Suddenly, his future has become a little hazy and his agent recently had to speak out to deny rumors that Collins was retiring.

Should the Cowboys do it?

No. Financially, there’s room to do it. However, with so much uncertainty regarding his physical condition, the Cowboys would be wise to let things play out before shifting any money into the future.

JAYLON SMITH

Smith signed a six-year, $68.4 million deal in 2019, but wasn’t chosen as a restructure candidate last season after a down year. Things haven’t gotten any better, but if the Cowboys did restructure his deal, it could look something like:

Similar to LC, there’s not a lot to gain with a restructure. And similar to LC, it’s a risky endeavor as the future is unknown. Unlike Collins where health is the big factor, we don’t know what to expect from a performance perspective with Smith going forward. Will a new defensive coordinator help make things better or will Smith continue to underperform?

Should the Cowboys do it?

No. We’re all hoping for the best with Smith, but we certainly can’t count on that. If he struggles again this upcoming season, he’ll likely be a huge candidate for a cap casualty next offseason, and the team doesn’t want to jack up that dead money hit from a restructure.


By restructuring Cooper, Martin, and Elliott the Cowboys could free up an additional $28.4 million of cap space. That’s plenty of room to tag Dak, sign free agents, and get their new draft picks under contract. And the best part is they can accomplish that without having to take on any of these riskier restructures. Pushing money ahead is part of the business, and the Cowboys are in good position to handle their business.