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Cowboys salary cap 101: Where they stand, and what they face

Let’s lay out a clear picture of what Stephen Jones obsesses over.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
Captain Cap.
Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images

The NFL salary cap is an artificially imposed limitation designed to control how much money the owners have to pay to the players and thereby protect profit margins. It can be manipulated by various means, but it does represent eventual limits for how much teams can do. Some teams are much more aggressive in pushing costs to future years to take advantage of the long-term trend of increasing cap numbers as revenues continue to climb in the NFL. Others take a different view, treating cap space as a precious treasure that must be hoarded. The Dallas Cowboys clearly fall into the latter category. EVP Stephen Jones uses the cap as justification for many of his personnel decisions. While we have recently been highly critical of his work, this article is not another diatribe about that. It is here to lay out where the team stands, what it has to do to meet the cap requirements, some ways to get more space, and what has to be done with it once they get it.

As has been mentioned repeatedly, the Cowboys are currently about $13.43 million in the hole. (All figures used here are taken from Over the Cap.) They have to get under that in just a few days. The league year starts at 4 pm ET on March 16. At that point, the top 51 contracts on the books have to be under the 2022 cap limit of $208.2 million. Additionally, the rookie pay chart means that the team will require another $3.26 million to sign the draft class, pending any trades. That means that the team will effectively have to free up about $16.65 million just to get through the draft.

That is hardly all they need to do, because they have to sign some free agents to have any kind of effective roster. The amount required is still very much to be determined. Free agent contracts are usually structured to reduce the cap hit in the first year, but a rough number of $20 million more is often used for estimation.

So the Cowboys will actually have to find around $37 million in cap space just to do business this offseason.

It now seems all but certain that a big chunk of that is going to come from releasing or trading Amari Cooper. Either would net $16 million in space, or almost all that the team needs to get through the draft. But there is a provision under the CBA to designate up to two players as post-June 1 transactions. In Cooper’s case that would raise the figure to $20 million. Given that he represents the biggest chunk of space to add, it is likely that Dallas would use that accounting trick to get the most out of his departure.

Hopefully, the team is not planning to make a similar move with DeMarcus Lawrence. Jones brought his contract up when he first broached the idea of moving on from big contracts to gain coveted space. That has died down with the intense focus on Cooper. While it is still a possibility, we will assume it is not going to happen.

That means the team still has to find quite a bit more space to work with. In addition to further cuts, the team can also restructure other contracts.

There are some other players that the team might elect to release. Here are a handful that might be under consideration.

  • K Greg Zuerlein. His performance last year was sketchy. His only made 82.9% of his field goals, which was just 23rd in the league. Even more concerning was his extra point number, 87.5%. That was 27th overall, and represented six points left on the field. The team brought in Chris Naggar as competition for him, and frankly they should not wait to move on. A release would add $2.48 million in space.
  • CB Anthony Brown. He would represent a bit of a risk, given that he is a returning starter. If the team truly believes Kelvin Joseph is the future opposite Trevon Diggs, however, the $5 million in cap savings might make it worth taking a bit of a risk.
  • TE Blake Jarwin. News that he had hip surgery puts his future with the Cowboys in jeopardy. He is not expected to be ready for the start of the year, and may have to consider retirement with the injury. The team is already reportedly considering putting the franchise tag on Dalton Schultz. That raises additional cap demands given that the tag represents a $10.8 million cost, none of which can be pushed to future years. But the tag also can be used to hold Schultz while the team seeks to work out a multi-year deal with a much smaller hit this season. Releasing Jarwin would save $3.85 million, and if the team used its second post-June 1 designation on him, that could be increased to $4.85 million. Further, this year both the draft and free agency are seen as deep at the position. It makes moving on less of a risk.

Those are the three most obvious players that might be cut. Most others represent smaller savings in any case, and would likely come in training camp.

That leaves one other tool to generate cap space, restructuring. While that always moves cap liabilities to future seasons where they have to be addressed, it is unavoidable for the Cowboys. Fortunately for them, they have several contacts that can be used to generate space. The figures here are for the max amount the team can get on the restructures, although they can also go for lesser amounts if they choose.

  • QB Dak Prescott. This is basically a given. The team is tied to him for the foreseeable future, and he is the big number for them. Savings: $15.17 million.
  • RG Zack Martin. He is getting up there in football years, but is still elite. His restructure could add $7.14 million.
  • RT La’el Collins. This is a more difficult decision. There are some who feel the RT position could be upgraded. Others think he is a good option for several years to come. If the latter is the stance of the staff, he can net $5.9 million.
  • DE DeMarcus Lawrence. The big question here is whether Jones is prepared to commit to Lawrence. If he is, Lawrence represents $11.9 million in potential savings.

There are also some significant amounts that could be gained from restructures for Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith, but neither is a good option. Elliott’s contract is already a big drag on the cap, and if they do not touch it this year, the team has options with him in 2023 and beyond that they don’t now. Smith may be getting too near the end of his career to mess with. He is still very good when available, but his history is to miss some games every season.

There is also one case that seems highly unlikely, but is worth mentioning. Cooper himself could bring over $12.5 million in cap savings with a restructure. The plan seems to be to re-sign Michael Gallup while letting Cooper go, but at last report the team and Gallup’s camp are still a good bit apart on what it will take to bring him back. If Gallup’s demands remain high, they might actually be better off letting him go to another team and keeping Cooper. Again, that possibility seems quite remote, but we’ve seen stranger things happen.

The cap space is available. It all comes down to how Jones decides to play things. The decisions will likely put too much weight on future considerations rather than winning this season. With some justification, there are suspicions that the team is not really focused on this year’s success but planning for big changes next year. Once again, the cap is going to be used as an excuse if that is the plan. It is just that, not a real reason to degrade this roster.