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The Cowboys and Rams are at opposite ends of the roster building spectrum

Comparing and contrasting how to skin a cat in the NFL.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

According to the official catechism of the Dallas Cowboys, salary cap space is holy and must be preserved. Or, in late eighteenth century terms, the Cowboys want to have their cake and have their cake. Stephen Jones brings up the cap every time a contract is discussed. It influences decisions on retaining or releasing players in Dallas as much or more than any other team in the league. Tied closely to this is the reliance on the draft to build their roster. As our Sean Martin detailed earlier, the Cowboys’ roster is more reliant on the players they get straight out of college than any other team. What Dallas most assuredly does not do is spend big in free agency or on trades, both in terms of dollars and draft capital. They are absolutely convinced they have the right approach.

That makes it a bit frustrating for us to see what is going on with the Los Angeles Rams. They have traded away multiple first-round picks in recent years and spent freely in free agency. Now they are locking down some of the players that got them a Lombardi Trophy in February and adding more to the mix.

It is easy to conclude that the Rams have found the key to success while all the Cowboys accomplished last year was a playoff bid and a quick exit. That’s a bit superficial.

Dallas, or Stephen Jones, apparently developed the current approach due to some signings that were seen as failures in free agency. That is the inherent risk in trying to bring in outside talent. Teams are always paying based on past performance more than realistic expectations. The latter are simply much harder to achieve.

NFL players have a notoriously short shelf life, and often hit free agency with little left. Players don’t come with a “use by” date, of course, so teams are taking a gamble with every single one. It is just aggravated by the completely unpredictable potential for injury. For NFL contracts, the most important thing is guaranteed money. That is the only thing the player will get if the team decides to release them, or a career-ending injury occurs. As players and agents have become more focused on guarantees, they have escalated. But, as in the case of Aaron Donald, the guarantees are still less than half the overall potential value of most deals.

For the franchises, the big issue is dead cap space if they release or lose a player. Dead cap is a charge that carries over just like excess cap space. Most importantly it takes away from the available cap. The Cowboys have been dealing with some dead cap issues for years, with Travis Frederick and Amari Cooper being a couple of notable examples. For the past three years, their dead cap number has been hovering around $25 million. Essentially that is a rather large contract you can’t complete, or a handful of lesser ones.

For some reason, this really bothers Dallas. Reducing the dead money risk is a consideration in contract negotiations. It also is a big inhibitor for free agency. Veterans looking for a big payday will want large guarantees, risking more dead cap if they don’t work out.

The Rams, quite simply, don’t care. Those five contracts mentioned above represent nearly $98 million in potential dead cap hits. Obviously LA is banking on not having the roster wiped out. That is still a lot of risk to take on, given that there are plenty of other Rams that come with big dead cap hits if something happens.

Of course, the Rams are mortaging their future by constantly pushing cap costs into the future. That is something Dallas has done a lot in the past, but lately they are more hesitant. Just for next year, L.A. is projected by Over the Cap to already have a negative $5.2 million in cap space. Meanwhile, the frugal ways of the Cowboys has them sitting at...um...negative $5.3 million.

How is that possible? It seems to come down to the fact that, despite the stated concerns about cap space, Stephen Jones winds up paying out big money and guarantees when things get down to the wire. That happened with Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Michael Gallup, and may happen to a lesser degree with Dalton Schultz. DeMarcus Lawrence also carries a large dead money number despite a perception he gave in a little so the team had space to retain Randy Gregory. That may be a bit of a sore spot right now.

In terms of managing the cap, the completely opposite approaches of these two teams have led to basically the same place. It can all go sideways if too many of the star players were to be suddenly lost, but that is true for both teams, although riskier for the Rams. For Dallas, the shortfall has come in talent. They are good, but flawed. Los Angeles has one of the absolute best rosters in the league, and do an excellent job covering up their warts. (All teams have some weaknesses.) It takes a combination of coaching, injury luck, and assembling the best talent you can.

Stephen Jones insists that the draft is a safer way to build a roster, but that may be a fallacy. College success does not always translate to the NFL. Certainly the Rams have done an excellent job so far in evaluating free agents. Their creative use of the cap has already paid off big, and with some of those big contracts locking down key players, they may be the team to beat for a while.

They also have clearly proven that they found a way to achieve the ultimate success in the NFL. It is almost entirely opposite of what the Cowboys have done. It does create some real frustration that Jones does not do more in free agency or trades. However, the most successful trade in recent years was the one for Amari Cooper, and that went sour last season, at least for the staff. The biggest free agent success of late has been Jayron Kearse. He was absolutely a bargain signing, and his new deal is team-friendly. If, as we postulate, Jones focuses first on financials, he keeps seeing things that validate his approach. He seeks to get to success on a carefully controlled budget. With the Rams, the focus is on winning, with the cap manipulated and utilized however it takes to get there.

That is where the real difference lies. You can argue about how real the cap is, but there is no question that L.A. is far more aggressive in manipulating things through proration of money, or pushing it to future years, than Dallas. This is still something the Cowboys use every season, but for them it is mostly reactive when they trigger restructures of existing deals to open more space. The Rams are proactive, using the same tool to bring in and lock down what they see as key talent. Somewhat fittingly, L.A. is very liberal with how they use the cap, while Dallas is as conservative as they come. The Rams maximize the flexibility built into the cap, which is certainly a soft one.

It is indeed a valid argument that getting more involved in free agency could help the Cowboys. But it is impossible to say that their current approach will never work. Only one team hoists that trophy at the end of each postseason. A lot of uncontrollable factors can derail a team, like the Prescott injury did in 2020. Until it pays off, however, we will continue to rail at Jones and the team.