The most prevalent phrase thrown around by fans since the Dallas Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs has been "cap space." Which free agents will the Cowboys be able to retain considering their cap space? Should Dallas cut either Demarcus Lawrence or Amari Cooper for cap space? Dak Prescott's contract is giving the Cowboys no flexibility in their cap space.
However, the cap is a difficult concept to truly quantify. The Saints have been in cap limbo for years, yet they always find a way to build their roster in free agency. So, given the fickle nature of the cap, what statements have been thrown around that we should question?
Myth: Dak Prescott's contract is killing the Cowboys cap space
No one will argue that Dak Prescott's $34.5 million is actively helping the Cowboys cap situation. No one will argue that the $45 million cap hit next year is easy to burden. But the notion that Dallas has no room to move solely because they paid their quarterback is entirely false.
Here are the seven quarterbacks set to make more money than Prescott in 2022, and their teams' cap ranking in parenthesis:
- Matt Ryan (25th)
- Aaron Rodgers (31st)
- Kirk Cousins (29th)
- Deshaun Watson (15th)
- Ryan Tannehill (26th)
- Russell Wilson (8th)
- Patrick Mahomes (18th)
- Dak Prescott (30th)
Outside of Aaron Rodgers, the six other teams paying their quarterbacks more than Prescott are in a better salary cap situation than Dallas.
Here is the reality, teams with even an above-average quarterback will have to pay up eventually. The other players on the roster dictate your cap situation, and Dallas has shelled out bad contracts for years now.
This further proves that once teams find a good quarterback on a rookie contract, they need to strike while the iron is hot. But the remaining 75% of teams paying a franchise QB doesn't cripple the cap situation.
Here are a few players that will be making money for Dallas in 2022 that you could blame instead of Dak Prescott's contract: Ezekiel Elliott, La'el Collins, Jaylon Smith (still making $7 million), and even Blake Jarwin.
So, to say that the only reason (or even the primary reason) that the Cowboys are in a poor cap situation is because of Dak Prescott would be an incorrect assumption. And even with Prescott set to make $45 million next year, this won't be crippling either because the salary cap will skyrocket with the new NFL media deal that starts in 2023. And by the end of his contract, Prescott might not even land inside the top-ten highest-paid QBs because that's how paying your signal-caller works.
Most teams find plenty of cap room despite paying their quarterback big money, and the Cowboys are in a bad cap situation for multiple other reasons.
Myth: The Cowboys have to cut Demarcus Lawrence or Amari Cooper to sign the free agents they need
There is a general belief that unless Dallas moves on from one of their key contributors, they won't retain the big names (Randy Gregory, Dalton Schultz, and Jayron Kearse). While it is unlikely they sign all three, it is possible to bring back at least two of those names without cutting Cooper or Lawrence.
Because the Cowboys have roughly $65 million in cap space they could save if they were to restructure the available contracts. Obviously, they won't restructure all of them, but this proves there is room for movement.
On the other hand, cutting Lawrence and Cooper would result in savings of $24 million, but then you have to commit to re-signing Randy Gregory, Michael Gallup, and possibly even Cedrick Wilson to replace the names you just cut.
And the value of re-signing Wilson, Gregory, and Gallup would assuredly be close to $24 million. Essentially, the Cowboys are considering cutting two of their best players to sign their replacements for the same amount.
Here are some better options to save money:
- Restructure Demarcus Lawrence’s and Amari Cooper's contract for up to $21 million in savings
- Restructure La'el Collins’ contract for up to $5.9 million in savings
- Release/restructure Blake Jarwin’s contract for up to $4 million in savings
- Restructure Dak's contract for up to $12.5 million in savings
While the Cowboys won't do all of this, nor will they restructure to save the full amount, the total savings from the above actions could exceed $43.9 million.
We will see how this plays out, but essentially the two paths the Cowboys could take are:
- Cut the best receiver and best edge defender on your team, save some money, so you can then re-sign the second-best edge defender plus the third and fourth receiving options.
- Restructure a few contracts, save more money, and push the cap situation to 2023, when the salary cap will explode anyway.
This is just further proof that the cap isn't as scary as Stephen Jones might make it out to be, and there are other options to free up money rather than cutting two of your best players.
Myth: The Cowboys have never been active in the free-agent market
This argument has the most validity to it. However, the idea that Dallas doesn't ever spend in free agency and exclusively relies on "home-grown" talent isn't entirely accurate.
The statement can be made that they never spend on big-name free agents, which is more factual. However, the players that teams need to break the bank in order to acquire rarely pay off in value.
Instead, Dallas has relied on finding cheap yet starter-quality talent in free agency to fill the teams' needs. Here are the Cowboys rankings over the past ten years by the number of players on the roster who they signed in free agency (didn't draft), per Spotrac:
- 2012: 10th
- 2013: 12th
- 2014: T-11th
- 2015: T-9th
- 2016: 11th
- 2017: 25th
- 2018: 26th
- 2019: 20th
- 2020: 28th
- 2021: 19th
Dallas has not been spending as much in free agency lately. Since 2016 they relied on their drafting for a couple of years, but the trend seems to be reversing where Dallas appears to be willing to spend in free agency again.
Now, this is not an argument that Jerry Jones will aggressively pursue the big-name free agents every year. But there was a solid five-year run where the Cowboys built their roster in free agency, constantly floating around top ten by the number of players on the roster who weren’t drafted by the team.
So, if the Cowboys can free up some money and aggressively add cheaper contracts to build a roster, Cowboys fans shouldn't be surprised. They did this in 2021 with Jayron Kearse, Keanu Neal, Damonte Kazee, and Malik Hooker.
If it is known that more often than not, big-name free agents rarely pay off in value. Isn’t spending money on promising yet less expensive talent the better option anyway? Just don't expect retaining the 2021 Cowboys players to be the only spending Dallas does in free agency.
No one knows how the Cowboys will handle the coming months with their salary cap situation. But there has been a lot of talk around the lack of cap room, and it isn't always 100% factual. Don't expect Dallas to go all in this year, but maybe the situation is less dire than it might appear.