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Cowboys face some big salary cap decisions before the start of free agency

As usual, the Cowboys will be facing some financial decisions this offseason.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys
Yeah, the ball is in his court again.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

It’s officially the offseason now that the Super Bowl has entered the history books with the Philadelphia Eagles not the winners. Now the Dallas Cowboys can start working on building their roster for 2023. They have a ton of free agents from last year’s 12-5 squad, which means a lot of holes to fill. Some need to be filled by re-signing their own, and while it may be unlikely, they really need to free up the purse strings and get one or two quality outside free agents (cough) wide receiver (cough).

But they have a real salary cap crunch. According to Over the Cap, Dallas is in the hole for cap space at this moment to the tune of about $7 million. They have to get even by the start of the league year on March 15th, and then any new deals will require more cap space. Our Tom Ryle has already looked at where that space is available, and we can expect to see a lot of action in the form of restructuring, releases, and possibly contract extensions.

However, that comes with a future cap cost, as restructures and extensions move some of the cap hit to future years. It is a bit of an endless cycle that the Cowboys under the cap and financial leadership of Stephen Jones are not too fond of. But it is also how the Eagles built the roster to get to the championship game this year, and it was how the Los Angeles Rams won it all the previous season.

Dan Rogers is also concerned about how much they want to do in that area. So they sat down to do a little back and forth on what the likely path forward will be.

Dan: The first order of business will come down to what they do with Dak Prescott. While the fanbase as a whole is divided as to whether he’s the quarterback for the future, many fans would agree that the Cowboys front office is all-in on him. That means they’re riding with Dak now, and they’ll be riding with Dak later.

So, contractually speaking, the Cowboys need to manipulate his contract to free up a good chunk of cap space so they can handle their offseason business. The only question is, will that manipulation come in the form of a contract extension (where both sides would have to agree) or will the front office be forced to just convert some of his $31 million base salary into bonus money to free up 2023 cap space? Either way, the team is looking at a maximum cap space of just over $20 million from Prescott’s restructuring. That alone will do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Cowboys' offseason money-moving sashay.

Tom: Dak is the whale in this exercise. I think we would both like to see them bow to the inevitable and do an extension now, but it would probably be another market-setting number, and we are all too familiar with how that script plays out in Dallas. They (meaning Stephen) won’t want to until they are forced at the last possible moment as his current deal is expiring, and they will pay more than they probably had to.

So they will restructure him. The problem is, they need about twice as much as the max amount that can bring to get the job done unless they are looking to tank this year. That seems incompatible with the Jones family DNA, which drives them to always think they are so very close to winning it all with just one or two key personnel moves.

That means more money has to be found, let’s say roughly $20-25 million more space. That may be good news for us running backs don’t matter truthers, because releasing one Ezekiel Elliott with a post-June 1 designation can net them a tidy $10.9 million in space.

Dan: I’m glad you brought up Zeke because I think we all would agree that this is the easiest chess piece to move that sets the team up for the most success financially. We love Zeke the person, but as a running back, he’s got to go. As you mentioned, that’s some good savings. And speaking of good savings, we also have to ask ourselves where else the Cowboys might choose to eliminate some big expenses. One of those big expenses is the $13.6 base salary that future Hall of Fame tackle Tyron Smith has in 2023. Again, we love Tyron, but can the Cowboys in good faith justify this cost?

The team has Tyler Smith and will certainly re-sign restricted free agent Terence Steele, so it’s hard to justify spending that kind of scratch on depth unless they want Tyler to play another year at guard.

While Zeke and Tyron are some easy ways to free up a lot of that $20-25 million you were talking about, I got to ask you about your grocery list. Maybe the Cowboys don’t quite need that much if they say... don’t re-sign Tony Pollard, or say... let (insert favorite house free agent here) walk. Recently, I ran a poll on Twitter asking fans how they would handle the running back position, and I got the following results.

So, before we go any further, can you give me some bare essentials that are at the top of your shopping list?

Tom: I may be in a minority here, but the top name after Steele, who as you said is a near lock to be brought back on a relatively inexpensive RFA tender, is Leighton Vander Esch. He may not be that costly given that off-ball linebacker is not high on the list of positions as far as cost across the league, but as we saw late last season when he missed games, the Dallas defense struggles without him as the defensive quarterback. The next two for me are Anthony Brown, with the team missing him badly while he was injured, and the enforcer of the secondary, Donovan Wilson. Brown is probably easier to try and bring back, because Wilson is likely to attract some serious suitors in free agency, and it is not hard to outbid Stephen Jones, unless the player involved is a running back. (Sorry, not sorry for that jab.)

And folks, this needs to be the year Stephen finally cuts a nice sized piece of the pie for a quality free agent wide receiver. So where does the cap space come from?

Well, you mentioned Tyron Smith. That is a bit sad, but he has had a long, successful run that should have him in the conversation for the Hall of Fame despite the way injuries have limited him for years. Still, that could leave them a bit short.

There are two remaining names that can net them almost $10 million apiece in cap space, DeMarcus Lawrence and Zack Martin. Both are getting up there in NFL years, but both are still playing at or near the top of the league at their position, particularly Martin. I think the team will restructure at least one of them, and have the other in reserve in case they need to generate more space. It does create future cap issues to deal with as restructures just push cap hits into later years, but the rising salary cap is a buffer against that.

Dan: Restructures are a risky endeavor if they are not a part of the team’s long-term future. When it comes to the 2014 All-Pro bros, the guy they choose to take out another mortgage on could depend on which of these guys might stick around for another contract. Both are still playing at a high level, but who is most valuable? Considering the front office was considering moving away from Tank last year (had he not taken a pay reduction), all signs point to Lawrence not being with the team past the 2024 season. Plus, the team has Micah Parsons and the youngster Sam Williams on their roster together for at least the next few years.

In a perfect world, I would like to see the team stay away from restructuring guys who aren’t sticking around long-term, but the Cowboys might have to break that glass if they need those emergency funds. The front office is super frugal in free agency and I don’t expect (nor want) that to change, so fans might want to satisfy their pie craving elsewhere because it likely won’t be coming in the form of a big-name signing. It’s just how the Cowboys do business.

Tom: I’ll just reiterate one thing. In the NFL, unless you are forced into a complete teardown/rebuild, the future is always now. We will soon see how well the front office understands that.

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