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The Dallas Cowboys salary cap picture for 2022 and beyond

It remains to be seen if the Cowboys focus on the future is wise or foolish.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles
He frees up more cap space than just this year.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After weeks of signaling that Amari Cooper would not be back for the 2022 season, the Dallas Cowboys have traded him to the Cleveland Browns. It looks like the Browns came out on top in the deal. All they gave up was a fifth round pick, plus they swapped places in the sixth with the Cowboys. Pending further moves, the team now has just short of $20 million in cap space to work with as free agency looms. That is likely to grow shortly as the team is also indicating that they are going to move on from La’el Collins one way or another. That could net another $10 million in space.

Some moves had to be made as Dallas was in the hole on cap space just days ago. With the addition of restructures for Dak Prescott and Zack Martin and some smaller moves, they are now able to work on re-signing their own free agents and at least do some of the ever-popular bargain free agent shopping.

It is at times hard to figure out what Stephen Jones is doing with his cap management. He has a well-established aversion to pushing things into future years more than he absolutely has to. But it is only by looking ahead that we might get an idea of what he is doing. Look at the following chart of the contract details for some of the top players on the roster now and still projected to be under contract in 2023. (All numbers taken from Over the Cap.)

2022/23 cap impacts

Player 2022 cap number Dead money Cap savings Post June 1 dead money Post June 1 savings
Player 2022 cap number Dead money Cap savings Post June 1 dead money Post June 1 savings
Demarcus Lawrence $27,000,000 $19,000,000 $8,000,000 $8,000,000 $19,000,000
Dak Prescott $19,730,000 $77,800,000 -$58,070,000 $19,730,000 $0
Ezekiel Elliott $18,220,000 $30,080,000 -$11,860,000 $18,220,000 $0
Tyron Smith $17,505,000 $12,015,000 $5,490,000 $4,005,000 $13,500,000
La'el Collins $15,250,000 $13,950,000 $1,300,000 $5,250,000 $10,000,000
Zack Martin $12,031,000 $27,250,000 -$15,219,000 $10,390,000 $1,641,000
Dalton Schultz $10,931,000 $0 $10,931,000 $0 $10,931,000
Anthony Brown $6,500,000 $1,500,000 $5,000,000 $1,500,000 $5,000,000
Jourdan Lewis $4,637,254 $2,333,334 $2,303,920 $1,166,666 $2,303,920
Player 2023 cap number 2023 dead money 2023 cap savings 2023 post June 1 dead 2023 Post June 1 savings
Demarcus Lawrence $21,000,000 $11,000,000 $18,000,000 $8,000,000 $21,000,000
Dak Prescott $31,000,000 $58,070,000 -$8,940,000 $18,130,000 $31,000,000
Ezekiel Elliott $10,900,000 $11,860,000 $4,860,000 $5,820,000 $10,900,000
Tyron Smith $13,600,000 $8,010,000 $9,595,000 $4,005,000 $13,600,000
La'el Collins $10,000,000 $8,700,000 $6,550,000 $5,250,000 $10,000,000
Zack Martin $13,500,000 $16,860,000 $3,030,000 $6,390,000 $13,500,000
Jourdan Lewis $4,500,000 $1,166,668 $5,000,000 $1,166,668 $5,000,000

There are still some opportunities for gaining more cap space this year. The big one is DeMarcus Lawrence, who was mentioned along with Cooper when Jones started laying groundwork for what was coming. As you can see, he could net the team as much as $19 million as a post-June 1 release. Restructuring his contract could create almost $12 million, but that seems to be far less likely than a trade or release. Others like Anthony Brown could also be contracts the team is eyeing. $5 million in savings is certainly less, but still useful.

Looking into 2023 may provide more insight into what the real strategy is. Note that the Cowboys could move on from any player currently under contract for then, even Prescott, to save cap space without incurring unacceptable dead money costs. Just a few days ago, Dallas was in the hole for 2023 cap space. Now, while they are still near the bottom of the league, they have $31 million in projected space to use. That is certainly going to change, but they have some important wiggle room. And as mentioned, they can release or trade almost anyone to quickly gain more cap space.

Many suspect that the ownership is preparing to make a change at head coach after this season, and this points to having things in position for a complete rebuild of the team. Mike McCarthy could still lead this team to a deep playoff run and save his job. There are unfortunately many things than can go wrong, such as crucial injuries. This all may well represent an attempt to prepare for a change while still keeping the team superficially competitive this year. The rest of the NFC East does not look ready to challenge the Cowboys if they just have decent luck. That should at least get Dallas to the playoffs, keeping them in the spotlight and at the top of all the national shows. It certainly seems like that is a consideration of the front office.

There may indeed be a master plan to all this. The problem is that it flies in the face of the NFL being very much a “this year” league. The Los Angeles Rams are just the latest example of a team that found ultimate success by going all in, with no real concern for what draft picks and future cap costs it entailed. Stephen Jones instead appears to be straddling the fence. He insists on giving future costs as much a priority as finding a way to get over the hump now. There are arguments to be made for keeping some of that powder dry, but unless you finally take the plunge at some point, it does the team no good.

If the team is taking a “prove it” approach with McCarthy, we need to take the same with the ownership. Of course, we cannot do anything about the situation no matter how badly things might turn out. But this is a year when a healthy skepticism is going to be justified, no matter how good some moves might wind up looking. With things like their habit of open mic negotiating, the Jones family has not earned our trust.