Free agency is getting closer, so the DMN has put out a guide for the Cowboys.
This offseason was supposed to be the eighth straight year in which the NFL’s salary cap experienced a year-over-year increase of at least $10 million. A continued climb would have pushed the cap to north of $210 million in 2021.
For years, teams planned for that. Most club negotiators habitually structure backloaded contracts based on their anticipation of continued cap growth.
Then a pandemic slashed stadium attendance, costing billions of dollars in revenue and triggering a historic cap downturn.
The Cowboys are no different than the 31 other NFL clubs, as they operate under an entirely different cap climate than originally envisioned. The exact league salary cap for 2021 is expected to be announced in the coming days, landing somewhere above $180 million but likely not dramatically so.
There’s only so much the Cowboys can do today to mitigate the situation.
They helped themselves last year when restructuring the contracts of left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, right tackle La’el Collins and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Those decisions, largely done in response to the pandemic and foreseen cap challenges, allowed the club to accumulate $25.4 million in unused cap space last year, according to the NFL Players Association.
Dallas carried over that unused total into 2021, so its adjusted cap will be at least $205.4 million.
Still, the extra space is not enough to breathe comfortably.
The NFL does not disclose specific figures of a team’s salary-cap standing. According to one estimate from overthecap.com, the Cowboys are projected to have around $19.4 million in cap space when the league year begins March 17.
With franchise tag looming on Dallas Cowboys, don’t expect Dak Prescott to blink now - Clarence Hill Jr., Star-Telegram
Can we ever reach an end to the Dak Prescott saga?
But, as of now, the Cowboys are in a pickle with the cap and Prescott’s franchise tag. A new deal before March 9 could potentially lower his cap number and make the issue moot.
But short of that, the Cowboys will have to clear room with contract restructures and/or releases.
The Cowboys created more $31 million in cap space in 2020 by restructuring the contracts of tackles La’el Collins and Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
The Cowboys can save $1.5 million against the cap by releasing punter Chris Jones, who has been made expendable by the play of Hunter Niswander last season.
The future of the team’s quarterback position could be decided in the next five days. The Cowboys have consistently said they want to keep Prescott long term. Team owner Jerry Jones compared Prescott to his son Stephen Jones and said there is no going forward without Prescott, a 2016 fourth-round pick who has unexpectedly developed into one of the league’s best quarterbacks.
But if the Cowboys place a second franchise tag on Prescott, a future without him is certainly on the horizon. Prescott will have all the leverage in contract talks. Either, the Cowboys agree to a deal on his terms or he plays on the franchise tag in 2021 with an eye on unrestricted free agency in 2022 when he can offer his services to the highest bidder. The latter is real because a third franchise tag would be at a cost-prohibitive $54 million for the Cowboys.
Every time Prescott has bet on himself and turned down a Cowboys offer, he has been rewarded by an increase in value. Don’t expect him to blink now.
Dalton Schultz was a breakout player in 2020, and will try to build on that in 2021.
The Good: The NFL is about “next man up.” Injuries happen, and a hard salary cap makes quality depth imperative. Schultz embodied “next man up” when Blake Jarwin suffered a torn ACL just 14 snaps into his first season as the starting tight end. Schultz, a fourth-round pick out of Stanford in 2018, played minimal snaps his first two seasons with the Cowboys. In 2020, he produced career highs across the board: 84.8% of the offensive snaps and 63 catches for 615 yards and 4 touchdowns. Schultz became only the fifth tight end in Cowboys history to post at least 50 catches in a season. He also made a strides as a blocker in the run game and pass protection.
The Bad: Hard to nitpick Schultz’s year given the role he expected to have before the season and the role he built as an efficient option underneath for four Cowboys quarterbacks who started games. He did have five drops – tied for 12th in the league, according to STATS – and the Cowboys as a team led the league with 31. That number obviously needs to drop in 2021.
It’s always good to keep tabs on former Falcons players on defense in free agency because of Dan Quinn, especially at positions of need.
Trufant signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Lions before the 2020 season to be the team’s replacement for Darius Slay, who was traded to Philadelphia. Detroit still owes Trufant $3.5 million in guaranteed money for 2021.
It never quite worked out for Trufant, who was the Week 1 starter, as he spent most of the season with hamstring issues that limited him to 6 games, 1 interception and 4 passes defended. He also ended up in a playing-time battle with rookie first-round pick Jeff Okudah and second-year pro Amani Oruwariye for outside spots. Trufant’s role as a No. 1 corner was in question for the 2021 season.
The Tony Pollard question will not go away after Zeke’s poor 2020.
If we’re looking for positives from an otherwise dismal 2020 season, the continued emergence of Tony Pollard was undoubtedly one of them.
Originally a fourth-round draft pick out of Memphis, Pollard impressed as a rookie in 2019 and continued to build on that in his second season.
Yes, it’s fair to point out that the second-year back struggled at times in his special teams roles. Pollard had several miscues throughout the season, including a muffed kickoff against Seattle that stranded the Cowboys at their own 1-yard line and led to a safety.
Still, the season was easily an overall Pollard – especially in the later stages, when Elliott was hampered by a calf injury.
A bit of a forgotten man in the early part of the season, Pollard took 45 of his 101 carries in the final five weeks of the season.
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