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How the Cowboys could upgrade their roster by exploiting teams with serious salary cap issues

The Cowboys front office should employ all facets of roster building, including this sneaky-good trade strategy.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The 2020 season is over and we can now officially turn the page and look ahead to the upcoming season. While a new year brings with it a fresh start, it also comes with some financial challenges in the form of a reduced salary cap. Last season, each NFL team had just a smidge under $200 million to use on players, but due to the lost revenue from the pandemic, it has been long predicted that the salary cap will be reduced. The actual number has not officially been determined at this point, but word on the street is that we’re likely to see a 10% dip.

The reduced cap will be felt across all teams, but it’s going to impact some squads far greater than others. Some people tend to think the Cowboys are one of those teams in trouble, but they actually have the 13th most cap space with $27.7 million. That’s $13 million over the $14.5 million league average.

NFL teams can be grouped into the following tiers (cap numbers courtesy of spotrac).

The Cowboys sit in decent shape in contrast to the rest of the league. Of course, their cap number doesn’t include Dak Prescott’s eventual contract. How the front office goes about that will have a huge impact on their 2021 figures. If they extend him prior to the start of the league year (March 17th), then his first year cap hit won’t be as large, allowing the team more financial wiggle room this year. If he’s not extended by then, the Cowboys will be forced to place the franchise tag on him, which will eat up $37.7 million of their space, putting them $10 million in the hole. In that scenario, they would have to move some money around in the form of restructures in order to free up space for Dak.

Regardless of how they handle Prescott, the Cowboys are still in pretty decent shape. Many teams are going to be shuffling money around to get under the cap. This new year will present some really difficult challenges and we should see cap casualties galore in coming months.

As teams attempt to finagle their financials, it’s going to open the door to some interesting trades this offseason. Teams will have to look long and hard about where they want to make cuts, and some of these decisions will inevitably lead to quality players exchanging teams.

The cap situation of some teams creates an opportunity for the Cowboys. We all know that Dallas is not a big player in free agency because of the talent drop off in players that teams are willing to walk away from. Because of cap casualties, the talent pool should be a little better this year, but the Cowboys won’t have the funds (or willingness to splurge) to compete with the higher cap teams for those services.

Instead, the Cowboys should look to go another route. They should target players who are still quality contributors to their team, but come at a cost that hurt their current team’s cap more than it would the Cowboys. These are players who are good enough to not actually be prime cap casualty candidates, yet carry a base salary high enough to be convinced to trade away if they can get some decent compensation in return.

The Cowboys do not want to reach for positions of need via the draft, so instead they may try to drive to a specific player that could immediately help their team. Of course, we’re not talking about a big splash because that would require surrendering premium draft capital as well as taking on a pricey contract. Instead, we’re going to focus on players who could come a little cheaper, yet still step into a starting role at a position of need for this Cowboys team. This brings us to our ground rules for this little exercise.

Rule #1 - Premium draft capital & pricey contracts are deal breakers

As just stated, we’re not including big name players who will cost a first-round draft pick and come with a huge financial burden. The Cowboys already played that card with Amari Cooper in 2018, and while the team does have some room, they’re not in financial position to make that type of investment.

Rule #2 - Attack the desperate teams

While there are many teams who have to do some cap finagling, we want to focus on those teams in dire shape who will be forced to be a lot more forthcoming in getting players off their books. And those team will be the five teams who are in the biggest hole. The Green Bay Packers, Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, and New Orleans Saints are all more than $20 million in the hole for the upcoming season. Those are the teams who will have to make the biggest sacrifices and also should welcome draft capital that offer a cheaper price of service.

Rule #3 - Restructured players are off the board

While it would be great to go after a player like Grady Jarrett, the financials just wouldn’t make sense. The Falcons are definitely a team needing to make big cuts, but they have so much money tied up in restructures with Jarrett that the cost of parting ways with him is just too severe.

It’s okay to think big with theses types of trade offers as these needy teams are going to be more susceptible in dealing away good players, but we want to be realistic with our scenarios.

Rule #4 - Must be a starting caliber player at a position of need

Simply put, we’re looking for players who will step in and be a legit starter for the team. Additionally, we’re driving to a specific position of need. Depth guys can be filled via free agency or with later round draft picks. We’re looking for something more than that through a trade.

Now that we have laid out our strategy, next we’ll take a look at three players who fit the bill for this scenario. Stay tuned tomorrow to see which players the Cowboys should go after. Any guesses?