While the Dallas Cowboys are currently focused on a major revamping of the coaching staff, including waiting to see if Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore might be offered head coach gigs, they will soon be working on free agency, the first major part of roster building. The league year and formal free agency begin on March 15th. Before that they have to decide about using the tag. Then they have to figure out which of their own free agents they want to try and bring back as well as who they might pursue on the open market.
Those are the three components of free agency. Dallas takes varying approaches to each, willing to use the tag at times, liking to re-sign their own players, and generally holding back to bargain shop the outside market. All three do have one thing in common. They require cap space. EVP Stephen Jones is the executive responsible for managing that. It is his touchstone. You have heard him repeatedly refer to the size of the pie, his way of describing the use of cap space. He likes to have a lot.
That is a bit of a problem right now, because the Cowboys have less than none. According to Over the Cap, which is the source for all figures used in this article, they are already $5.1 million in the hole with the contracts currently on the books and the estimated cap for the NFL this year. This is actually a common position to be in at this point. 14 teams in total are in the red, with the New Orleans Saints facing a whopping $58 million and change in negative space.
For all of those teams, and the ones that don’t have big cap carryovers like the Chicago Bears ($92 million), there will be shenanigans, or more properly, contract management and manipulation. Releasing players currently on the roster sheds cap, although it can also create dead money issues. Contracts can also be restructured by turning current salary into bonuses, which are then prorated so that most of the money is charged against the cap in future seasons. Once, that was seen as “kicking the can down the road” and unwise, but in recent years, it has become standard operating procedure for the league. Dallas actually was one of the pioneers in using restructuring to create space, but ironically Jones has become reluctant to use it of late.
There is not much choice in 2023, however. Cap space, and a lot of it, has to be found. While any player can be released, most have low level deals and would have minimum impact on the cap.
Enough cap space to allow Dallas to tag and re-sign their own players, add outside free agents, and eventually sign their draft class will have to come from the big fish, players on major contracts. Here are the ones who could well be involved.
Release or retirement
Trades can also be used, but create the same numbers.
RB Ezekiel Elliott
The Cowboys overdrafted him to begin with, and have massively overpaid him since. He should be a cautionary tale about investing too much in a position that is one of the most replaceable in the league. 2023 is the year cutting him becomes feasible with his dead money numbers. He would probably be one of the two post-June 1 cuts allowed each team, which allows them to save more space.
Maximum cap space created: $10.9 million
OT Tyron Smith
This is why I included retirement. Smith has fought injuries for most of his career, spending the bulk of 2022 on IR before coming back in the last month of his season. He is one of the absolute best to play LT when he is healthy, but that just doesn’t happen much any more. He might choose retirement, or the team may make the call to release him. Tyler Smith was drafted to be the future at LT, and he appears ready to assume the mantle. To look at the best case scenario for the team, this will be considered as the second post-June 1 cut they are permitted.
Maximum cap space: $13.5 million
CB Jourdan Lewis
This is far less likely in my opinion, but he would be returning from injury and the team has released players in that situation before. A decision on Lewis may be intertwined with the possible re-signing of Anthony Brown, also coming off IR. This might be an either-or situation, and Lewis could be the odd man out. The emergence of rookie DaRon Bland makes it more feasible.
Maximum cap space: $4.7 million
Those three players represent a combined $29.5 million in potential space. There could be other surprising releases, but listing every possibility that could save millions is a bit unwieldy. Releasing players is not enough, however. The remainder needed will come from restructuring or extending players.
To not get too complicated, this will just look at restructuring. Extending contracts can garner more money, but not usually by a large amount. It also means a longer commitment to the player, which is always risky in the violent NFL. The team can always restructure less than the full amount as well, but again we are using a maximum case for each.
QB Dak Prescott
Understand, this is not a question of if, but when. It will happen, because he is the biggest resource for generating cap space, by a wide margin. He is not going anywhere despite the heated arguments for dumping him on social media and among the controversy creating national personalities.
Maximum cap space: $22.3 million
The following are also options, but may or may not all be used.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
Maximum cap space: $9.2 million
RG Zack Martin
Maximum cap space: $9.2 million
WR Michael Gallup
Maximum cap space: $7.4 million
DE Dorance Armstrong
Maximum cap space: $2 million
One consideration for all these players is that the team is making a bet they will play out their current contract so these amounts can be “paid out” without dead money hits.
That is the list of players who would create over a million in space apiece. The team could also restructure both Tyron Smith and Ezekiel Elliott, although for various reasons that seems like a bad idea. However, here are those amounts:
Smith: $6.2 million
Elliott: $7.3 million
Stephen Jones can pull these various levers to generate tens of millions in space. The Cowboys will probably need on the order of $40 million, which would give them about $35 million for new contracts. This is clearly achievable, and they could still hold some of these moves in reserve in case they need to up their space after free agency starts really rolling, or for emergency signings in training camp or the regular season.
There is one more possible way to add a bit of space. Reportedly Elliott is open to renegotiating his contract to play for less money. That does not feel terribly likely. If anything, the Cowboys would release him to gain the most space, then they could re-sign him back on a lower cost deal.
Some of these moves will happen, possibly most of them. They are just part of the way the NFL deals with the artificial restrictions of the salary cap.