After two-straight 12-5 seasons and earlier playoff exits than expected, the Dallas Cowboys will once again try to figure out what needs to be done to help this team reach the next level. With a defense that has transitioned into one of the best in the league (ranked second in DVOA behind San Francisco), all eyes will be on the offseason. We’ll hold our breath waiting for the Cowboys to make the right adjustments on offense. In a way, the entire barometer of the 2023 offseasons hinges on one all-important question, will they add another playmaker to this offense?
If they do, Cowboys fans will rejoice as the confidence in this team will rise. If not, then it’s another long offseason filled with heavy scrutiny surrounded by narratives that the front office is not doing enough to help their franchise quarterback. And already, the indecisiveness is starting as it’s unclear if a big playmaker is coming. On one hand, you have reports that the Cowboys are focused on making an impactful addition to the offense, and then on the other hand you have reports that the Cowboys are literally not working on something “big” and going about their usual offseason rigmarole of building through the draft and uninspiring free agent signings.
So, which is it?
Honestly, it feels like we already know the answer to this question. The Cowboys have not only been transparent about their lack of desire to make big splashes in free agency, but they’ve also been pretty consistent. As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, and the Cowboys just haven’t been big players when it comes to outside free agents. While some fans hope that this offseason will be different, it’s never been more apparent that it won’t. And Jerry Jones has made it perfectly clear as to why that is.
Jerry Jones flat-out said the Cowboys aren’t able to surround Dak Prescott with the same tools he once had earlier in his career. The reason for this is simple math. During Prescott’s rookie deal, his salary accounted for a fraction of a percent of the team’s total salary cap. Over the past two years, that percentage has gone up to 8%. It will be 22% of the team’s cap space this upcoming season. Paying a quarterback a lot of money means there isn’t as much money to go around for other players. And while the salary cap is fluid and offers flexibility, the Cowboys have shown some level of discipline to not completely mortgage their future to gamble on short-term success.
Jones’ comments indicating that they won’t be able to give Prescott the help he once had got us thinking. Just how much of a difference in the cap space are they forced to work around, and what will the drop off in contribution of the supporting cast look like?
First, let’s take a look at the money. Since the salary cap changes every year, we will do our comparison in terms of the percentage of the cap that a player takes up in a given year. Looking at all the main components of the offense (2 RBs, 4 WRs, 2 TEs, and 6 OLs), here’s how the cap resources have been divvied up since Prescott entered the league (Note: 2020 is omitted from this assessment since Dak was out for the majority of the year).
What does it mean?
Outside of the total increase we see from Prescott’s larger salary, we also see a couple of data points that confirm what we already know. First, the cap space allocated to the running back position jumps up because of how much the team is paying Ezekiel Elliott. Conversely, the team saw a drop in the percentage of cap space allocated to wide receivers. Last year’s total of 4.8% is comparable to another low percentage season in 2018. Not surprisingly, these years reflect the post-Dez Bryant and the post-Amari Cooper seasons when the team moved on from their larger cap hits and tried to supplement the receiving game elsewhere.
This also confirms what Jerry Jones said in that the team isn’t spending as much on Dak’s supporting cast as they were before. This cost has dropped about 5% since the last year of Prescott’s rookie deal in 2019. And with Prescott’s cap hit increasing even more this upcoming season, the pie for the supporting cast should continue to shrink.
Now that we know how the cap resources are being spread around, how does that affect the results on the field? To help understand this better, we will be using two metrics. The first will be the approximate value score awarded by Pro Football Reference so we can get a sense of the individual contributions from each player as well as the total from their respective position group. We will total up the score for all of Prescott’s key supporting castmates for each year (again, excluding 2020).
We will also look at offensive DVOA provided by Football Outsiders to gauge a team’s overall performance for that season. We’ve included both passing and rushing DVOA scores so we can see the impact of each element of the offense.
What does it mean?
It should come as no big surprise that when Prescott has talent around him, the offense hums. Twice during his career, he’s had a total supporting AV contribution above 100 and in both instances, the Cowboys were in the top three in total DVOA and top five in both rushing and passing. And when he had the lowest amount of help during the 2018 season, the team was in the bottom half of all the DVOA offensive categories.
From an individual contribution perspective, the Cowboys are getting slightly less from the supporting cast than they were in 2019, but it’s not a huge disparity. The Cowboys' offensive line has dropped in recent years without Travis Frederick and the lack of availability of Tyron Smith, but outside of that, there hasn’t been a huge shift in contribution. What has dipped with Zeke has been replaced with Tony Pollard and the outstanding play of CeeDee Lamb has helped offset the overall ability of the wide receiver group.
Looking ahead, there are reasons to be hopeful and concerned. Prescott’s cap hit is something they have to work with and they already have their backs against the wall. Let’s hypothesize a 2023 outlook that speculates the team will franchise tag Pollard, place a second-round tender on Terence Steele, and for the sake of freeing up more money, outright release Zeke. If those things are done, the Cowboys' cap allocation on offense looks a bit like this...
This puts their cap allocation without Dak at the same amount it’s been over the past two years. And this is without any big difference-making addition in free agency. When you then factor in Prescott’s cap hit, the amount they have to work with is significantly less.
Now, granted, there is some wiggle room here. Prescott will almost certainly see his cap hit reduced by virtue of an extension or restructure, and the team may work a reduced base salary deal with Tyron Smith to free up a little more space. Additionally, Zack Martin’s contract can also be restructured if they want to push some of his base salary into the future.
In all, there are ways to free up some cap space, but it still doesn’t leave much room to add splashy free agents to spruce up the offense. The good news is they’ll still have Pollard and Lamb on this team, so they don’t need a major overhaul. Just a slight improvement with the wide receiver group can bump their 97 AV score over 100 and possibly get that offensive DVOA in the top 5 again.
So, temper your expectations if you’re hoping for a big OBJ-type move, but at the same time, rest easy knowing the team doesn’t require a big shake-up to get their offense back on track.