At first glance, the idea of the Dallas Cowboys trading for Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown sounds pretty far-fetched. But if you really start to look at, Dallas is in a better position to add the Steelers disgruntled star receiver than most teams. It makes you wonder if the Cowboys may not try to make a move for Brown this offseason.
You might balk at this idea immediately when you remember that Dallas has to re-sign DE DeMarcus Lawrence and that WR Amari Cooper's cap hit is going to jump by about $13 million in 2019. And if the Cowboys are serious about getting an extension done with QB Dak Prescott, then that further complicates matters.
But 2019 is a new reality for the Dallas Cowboys when it comes to the salary cap. You're not used to this team having financial flexibility, but their recent youth movement and refusal to give big contracts to aging stars has changed the fiscal landscape.
Depending on where you look, the Cowboys are projected to have anywhere from $48 to $54 million in cap space next year. And that includes the salary jumps for Cooper, Byron Jones, and any other players currently under contract.
But before we get into whether or not adding Antonio Brown works financially, let's consider if the Cowboys really need him.
Dallas made a big move at WR last season, sending their 2019 first-round pick to the Raiders for Amari Cooper. With Dallas making the playoffs and Cooper playing in the Pro Bowl this Sunday, there's little you can say against the trade now.
Cooper and second-year stud Michael Gallup will anchor the receiving corps next season. But now Dallas has to figure out what to do with Cole Beasley, who turns 30 this year and has recently been voicing his displeasure with how much he's used in the Cowboys offense.
While Cole did finish the year with the third-most targets on the team, he was hardly utilized in the playoffs. Beasley was only thrown at five times out of 64 total passes in those two games; roughly 8% of the targets in the postseason.
Cole wants and, frankly, deserves more. And his frustration does make you wonder if there would be enough targets to satisfy Antonio Brown if he came to Dallas.
A big factor here is the change in offensive coordinator. Will the new OC, who every day appears closer to being Kellen Moore, open up the passing game?
Dallas was 21st in pass attempts in 2018 with 527 throws. The top team was, coincidentally, the Pittsburgh Steelers. They threw 689 passes last year.
Now, we're not saying that the Cowboys are going to suddenly turn into a pass-heavy offense. They still have Ezekiel Elliott and a lot invested in the run game, plus nobody expects Dak Prescott to suddenly turn into Drew Brees.
But if Dallas were to add Brown, they could add a player who is not only better than Cole Beasley but would rival Amari Cooper as the team's top receiver. Even though he turns 31 this year, Antonio can still dominate a game with the best of the them.
Michael Gallup isn't entitled to a starting role next year. Dallas could start Brown and Cooper and then bring in Gallup in 3WR sets, with the flexibility to move either Antonio or Amari into the slot. They could do a lot to keep defenses guessing with their top two receivers.
Remember, Tavon Austin is also a free agent. If he and Beasley both leave Dallas, the next best options are Allen Hurns, Noah Brown, and.... *gulp*.... Terrance Williams.
So yeah, the Cowboys could sure use Antonio Brown. If you liked what Amari Cooper's presence did to help open up the offense last year, imagine what having two guys of that caliber would do.
But can Dallas afford to do it?
First off, before we even get back into the salary cap, what about trading for Brown? What will the Steelers accept for him?
Well, Dallas was able to get Cooper for a first-round pick. And Amari, who turns just 25 this summer, is about six years younger than Brown.
However, Coooper was also struggling in Oakland. In fact, many felt that a first was far too generous given his recent play. Dallas took a big gamble that a change of scenery would do him good, and it paid off.
Brown may be unhappy in Pittsburgh but it hasn't stopped him from being one of the game's best receivers. In just 15 games last year, Antonio had nearly 1,300 receiving yards and a whopping 15 touchdowns. He's still elite.
But at 31, the chance that his skills will start to decline is a major issue. And given the breakdown between Brown and the Steelers hierarchy, Pittsburgh doesn't have much leverage.
However, thanks to their solid finish to the season, Dallas' draft picks aren't as attractive as they were last October. Their original 2019 picks will now be toward the end of each round.
Given that, Pittsburgh may not want even the Cowboys' second-round pick. They also probably wouldn't take the 2020 first-round pick; the Steelers will want some immediate return to help them get back to the playoffs next season.
So no, Dallas and Pittsburgh may not make great trade partners there. And that might settle this issue before anything relevant to the Cowboys' salary cap.
But let's just play with the possibility that the teams could work out a trade. How would Dallas fit Brown's contract into their salary cap?
For this hypothetical, we'll ballpark the Cowboys' 2019 cap space at $50 million.
If Dallas were to trade for Antonio Brown, they would only be responsible for the base salary and unpaid bonuses in his deal. For 2019, that would be a $12.6 million salary and a $2.5 million roster bonus for a total $15.1 million salary cap hit.
Re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence will likely have a first-year cost of close to $20 million. That's also about what it would cost to give him the franchise tag again, so the Cowboys may be able to negotiate that down a bit through a long-term contract. But still, it's going to be a lot.
So let's just knock our cap space down to $30 million after Tank gets paid. The Cowboys won't need a lot to pay their 2019 rookie pool given they don't have a first-round pick. It shouldn't take more than about $4 million.
Now, let's talk Dak Prescott's extension. Dallas may be committed to him as their QB of the future, but it doesn't necessarily mean they have to give him a new deal now. They may want to see how Prescott responds to a new offense and performs in the final year of his rookie deal before making a franchise-altering decision.
Even if Dallas does extend Prescott, they can take steps bring that first year cap hit down tremendously. An immediate restructure could put a lot of money back into the salary cap, which would make sense at this point in the contract.
Still, we see how quickly that cap space dried up. Does that means Dallas would be too cash-strapped to make a play for Antonio Brown?
The Cowboys could also make space for Brown with some cap-saving moves elsewhere on the roster. The easiest one would be releasing Sean Lee, which clears $7 million in cap space in 2019. With Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch now the key players at linebacker, this one doesn't hurt that much.
Another $5.9 million could come from releasing veteran Tyrone Crawford. He's a valuable member of the defensive line, but Dallas has a lot of interesting young players at both DE and tackle. The money could be more valuable than the player at this point.
What about getting some money back at receiver, since that's what you'd be adding? Allen Hurns could be released for $5 million off the cap, and Terrance Williams for another $2.25 million.
Those four moves just put another $20 million into the 2019 salary cap. That would pay for Antonio Brown and give you space to do other work on the roster, or perhaps even give you the option to keep Crawford.
Of course, all of this is speculation and a loose look at the financial ramifications. And as we said, Pittsburgh may have not interest in the draft picks that Dallas can offer.
But not every team has the cap space to take on Antonio Brown, or the willingness to take a risk on a player whose had trouble making friends at his last job. The Cowboys have both, and adding a guy like Brown could be what they need to push the offense and the team to Super Bowl contention.
I'm not saying it's happening or even all that probable.
But clearly, it's possible.
History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot
If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.
Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.
For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.
Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.
The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.
Need more convincing?
Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.
Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.
Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker
The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.
Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.
Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.
This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.
Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:
- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
- Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall
There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.
Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.
Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.
Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.
One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.
It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.
Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?
But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?
~ ~ ~
OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”
There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.
Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?
It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.
"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."
Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW
Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.
Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.
While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.
In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.
They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.
Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.
There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.
If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.
And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.
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