It is sometimes easy to forget that the NFL is a business first and foremost. We focus on the competition and entertainment of the games and the moves made during the offseason to do the necessary reworking and restocking of the roster. But for the people who matter the most, namely the owners, this is also about their bottom line. As fans of the Dallas Cowboys we are very familiar with that. Stephen Jones finds a way to bring up salary cap considerations and the importance of draft picks almost every time he wanders by a microphone. While his somewhat obsessive approach seems over the top, the basic principle is not necessarily wrong. Both the cap and the structure of the draft are designed to make the league more competitive, since that leads to more revenue by creating more interesting games for fans to watch. All teams have to look at the return on investment players represent, both in terms of how much money and cap they tie up and how they were obtained.
Guided by those concepts, who are the players for the Cowboys who are most likely to over and underperform this season, or in other terms, who provides good or bad return on the investment (ROI)?
Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way. Remember, this is about the likelihood. Before we get to the likely ones, note that Dak Prescott is not considered. Quarterback continues to be a unique beast in the league. It is a pass/fail position. They are either a franchise QB or not. A healthy Prescott is. Those get paid.
Now to the players that have the most potential to disappoint.
It isn’t his fault. That needs to be delineated. No running back should account for over 8.5% of a team’s cap space. Elliott does. The management caved to his demands when he held out, a huge mistake. Elliott has been an elite back, especially early in his career. The issue is that elite backs don’t matter that much. The position has become one of the most interchangeable ones in the league. Production is too easy to replace. It is unfortunate for backs, because more and more teams are treating them as one and done in terms of contracts, using rookie deals to control costs. Likewise, they are not worth high picks. Performance is dependent on blocking. A good offensive line and some willing tight ends and wide receivers will get the job done even if the running back is more average than exceptional. We all hope Elliott revives his career for at least this season. Even if he does, it just is not worth the cost.
Again, this is not really on the player. In Smith’s case, it is due to his decade of wear and tear. He has not played a full season since 2015, and missed almost all of 2020. His contract still represents about 8.4% of the cap. It would take a full or nearly full season of availability while maintaining his proficiency as he nears the NFL’s equivalent of being a senior citizen to avoid underperforming this year.
Here’s the good news. Those are the only two players who are likely to really underperform their cost.
We discussed this idea in greater detail on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Again, there are players that just don’t factor in. Those are the first four draft picks this year. This is mainly because you expect players taken with premium picks to be a great value. Even if they become starters, that is what you were shooting for when you used that pick. Likewise, the were not included in the underperforming category because you cannot put too much on any rookie. It’s always a roll of the dice, and some just come up snake eyes.
Duh. He was the best rookie in the league last year on either side of the ball and the first unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year since the award was started. All that came while he played through a hyperextended knee. As a former first-round pick, he still only represents about 1.9% of the cap. If his performance is the same this year, he is an absolute bargain even considering the use of a first on him.
He won’t be as much of a bargain next year, with double the cap hit, but coming up just under what Parsons costs for 2022, he is poised to greatly outperform what he costs. Last year he led the team in tackles and added two interceptions and a sack from his hybrid safety/linebacker position. He even took over the defensive play-calling duties, wearing the radio receiver that allows Dan Quinn to send in his plays. He was the most important signing of the offseason when Dallas brought him back after a one-year deal. Even in light of the total $10 million price tag for his current two-year contract, he is well worth the investment and should pay off handsomely.
With Michael Gallup likely to miss several games to start the season and free agent signee James Washington seen wearing a walking boot in OTAs, Brown could easily find himself one of the top three WRs coming out of camp, along with CeeDee Lamb and Jalen Tolbert. He is playing for close to the veteran minimum. Up to this point Brown has been buried in the depth chart, but this is his second one-year contract. The staff sees something they like in him. Now add the time he has spent working with Prescott over the previous five seasons. He has a chance to make a big contribution as opponents will be focused on Lamb and likely put their second best DB on Tolbert. Even after Gallup returns, Brown could still get more chances than he has at any time in the past. Any production at all gives the team good ROI.
He is the expected starting right tackle, and the staff believes in him enough that they parted ways with La’el Collins. He is playing on the final year of his UDFA rookie contract, which is peanuts. If they really have faith, Stephen Jones should be looking hard at getting an extension done, but we know how he likes to wait to the last minute. In any case, when one of the key players on your offensive line is also one of the cheapest on the roster, you are getting some major bang for the buck. Assuming, of course, that he is up to the task.
Those are the four veterans who seem to have the highest potential ROI. But late-round picks and UDFAs that make the team always represent excellent value. Here are a few that seem to be in a good position to do that.
There are no assurances he will work out. If he does, though, it will be as the legitimate nose tackle this team has long lacked. Technically that will make him a starter, although he will really only be used on likely running downs. Still, getting that on a fifth-round rookie deal would be something of a steal. It would be great for the defense, but it is almost regrettable that the team will be rewarded for their parsimonious ways of approaching the interior defensive line.
The concept for him seems to be make him a swing or backup tackle and see if he could become the eventual replacement for Tyron Smith. There is a thought that Tyler Smith is the intended heir at left tackle, but if he does work out as the left guard, it would be good to have a way to keep him there. Swing tackle is a valuable part of any roster. To get one in the fifth is good value, especially if there is upside. For now, however, Josh Ball seems to be ahead of Waletzko on the depth chart. But it’s just OTAs and there is plenty of time for this to play out.
He’s the early favorite among UDFAs to make the roster. Like with Ridgeway, this would have the downside of validating the Cowboys’ approach to investing nothing of significance in safeties. They seem to have real hopes for him with one of the biggest guarantees for a UDFA signing in the league this year, $215,000. All he has to do to be good ROI is just make the 53.
Or maybe Storey Jackson. In any case, the team lacks linebacker depth. Just making the roster and playing special teams is a great outcome for a UDFA, and both have a legit shot.
Any of the five UDFA wide receivers
It’s a lot, and we have already discussed the need at the position. It is actually fairly common for UDFA receivers to stick for at least a while, so this is a pretty good spot to watch.
Those are the candidates for biggest departure from expected ROI based on cost. The Cowboys need more overperformance than otherwise. Fortunately, the numbers favor them.