The 2018 NFL Free Agency market opens on Thursday, March 14th, at 4:00 p.m. With just six days left, the Dallas Cowboys have several moves they need to make to clear cap space and secure some of their own free agents before the new league year begins.
After franchising defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on Tuesday, Dallas' cap space was almost entirely gone. They cleared up some on Wednesday by releasing DE Benson Mayowa, and now have roughly $4 million in available cap dollars.
Obviously, that's not much. That may not even fund your rookie class, so the Cowboys clearly have some cap-clearing work to do if they're going to have a productive offseason.
Thankfully, there are several moves at Dallas' disposal for adding some spending power. However, there also a few more expenses on the way if the Cowboys want to retain some of their current talent.
Before we get into all of the ways that salary cap space can be opened, let's deal with the free agents that Dallas will have to spend some money to keep.
Restricted Free Agents
The big issue here is David Irving, who is one of the most attractive defensive line prospects among this year's free agents. Thankfully, because he's only had three NFL seasons, David is only a restricted free agent and the Cowboys can use one of the RFA tenders to protect their asset.
The RFA tender amounts for 2018 are:
- 1st-Round: $4.149 million
- 2nd-Round: $2.914 million
- Original Pick: $1.907 million
Because he was undrafted, David Irving won't be getting the lowest tender. It would be irrelevant, other than giving Dallas the option to match any contract offer he gets from another team.
If Dallas intends to use the RFA tender to dissuade other teams from trying to sign Irving, they will likely go with the highest 1st-round amount. That means if a team attempts to sign David and the Cowboys allow him to go, they would get a 1st-round pick back from his new team. Even for a guy with Irving's youth and upside, that is more than most team's would be willing to give up.
The 2nd-round tender is more interesting. A team could easily see Irving as someone who could help them more today, and perhaps even has more upside, than rookies they may acquire with that pick.
But that logic goes both ways. If teams think Irving is worth more than their 2nd-rounder, the Cowboys may feel the same way.
The most likely outcome here is that the Cowboys use the $4 million 1st-round tender to keep everyone else away from Irving and rent him for one more year at a relatively cheap salary. It will give them one more season to see how just much they like David and perhaps give him a long-term deal, or even the franchise tag, in the 2019 offseason.
As for fullback Keith Smith, the team's only other RFA, he is unlikely to get a tender given his position. Even the lowest $1.9 million option would be expensive for a fullback. I would expect Dallas to try to secure him with a simple two or three-year extension, paying a little less than $1 million per season.
Contract Restructuring: Offensive Line
So whether it's the 1st or 2nd-round tender, David Irving is going to eat up almost all of the Cowboys' remaining cap space. They will have to clear up room to do anything in free agency, and restructuring some of their veterans' contracts is the next move.
The easiest decision here is with center Travis Frederick. The All-Pro's 2018 cap hit is current at $13.2 million and the team can bring that down significantly with a restructure that could create up to around $7 million in new cap room.
Restructuring is all about sacrificing future flexibility for the present. Dallas would be increasing the dead money penalties in the later years of Frederick's deal for immediate spending power.
You don't mind this with a guy like Travis Frederick, who is always healthy and figure to be with your team for many years to come. There is little reason to think Dallas would cut him anytime soon, so you don't mind giving up leverage down the road that you probably wouldn't use anyway.
A similar opportunity is available with left tackle Tyron Smith, but not with the same confidence. Smith's recent back issues may give the team pause on moving money around, but his current $17.5 million cap hit is the highest on the entire roster.
The Cowboys may not have much choice here. They can clear about another $7 million on Smith's deal and, as we've established, it's money they desperately need. Dallas will likely have to hope that Tyron, still just 27 years old, isn't going to break down on them so early in his career.
One underrated move would be also doing a restructure on right tackle La'el Collins. Dallas could shave about $1.8 million from his 2018 cap hit and increase the guaranteed money next year. It's not a lot, but every little bit helps in their current state. It's also an easy move as Collins is a lock to be with the team through 2019.
Contract Restructuring: Older Veterans
While the offensive linemen offer the biggest potential cap relief, some of the team's other key players could be used to create space. Jason Witten and Sean Lee are two guys who are sure to stay with the club in 2018, and as such may be up for a little restructuring.
Witten's contract is a team-friendly deal that is heavily based on incentives and had no signing bonus. Dallas could actually cut him right now with no dead money penalty and an instant $6.95 million in cap savings.
Some of you out there might make that move. Heck, I just might if I was the general manager. But there is no indication that the Cowboys are going to get cutthroat with such a beloved veteran as Witten.
What the team can do is convert about $3.9 million of Witten's salary into a bonus and get that back in cap room. It would mean creating a potential cap penalty if Jason is released or retires next year, but the Cowboys may be willing to rob Peter to pay Paul in this situation.
As i wrote about earlier this week, Sean Lee's contract could also be restructured. But with Lee having some injury issues in 2017 and turning 32 this summer, Dallas may not want to kill their leverage for the next offseason.
The Cowboys could free up about $4-5 million in space now, but that would increase their penalty next year if they decide to part ways with Lee. If Sean were to have more health issues this year, Dallas might move on with Jaylon Smith and the next generation of talent at linebacker.
I am confident that something will happen with Jason Witten's deal, but I'm 50/50 on Sean Lee. There's just too much risk with Sean, be it past issues with his knees, concussions, or last year's hamstring problems. Dallas may do it just because they have to, but ideally they would keep their options open for next year.
Long-Term Deals for Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence
Right now, Lawrence and Martin combine for almost $26.5 million in cap dollars. DeMarcus takes up $17.1 million with his franchise tag and Zack costs $9.4 million because Dallas picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal.
Both of these cap hits will go down significantly once Dallas reaches long-term deals with these Pro Bowl players. The issue here is timing; can they get any of the deals done in the next six days to clear cap space for free agency?
That's going to be tough, if for no other reason then agents like to use free agency activity to help set the market price. While the big contracts from last year serve as a guide, it's much better to point to current money being given to guards or defensive ends as it includes the general year-to-year inflation.
Of the two players, Zack Martin is far more likely to get something done in the near future. These negotiations were going on last year, plus you have Travis Frederick's contract from 2016 as a good starting place. Martin should get a similar deal, adjusted for inflation.
One Frederick was signed, Dallas immediately restructured the first year of his deal so that he counted only $2.1 million against the cap. The same will happen with Zack, lowering his cap figure by about $6-7 million from where it currently sits.
The real question is whether or not either of these moves can happen in the next six days and give Dallas more to work with in free agency.
Roster Cuts Not Named "Dez Bryant"
Let's get one easy one out of the way. James Hanna counts $3.5 million against the cap with only $750k in dead money; $2.75 million in cap savings. Like Benson Mayowa a few days ago, he should be released soon.
Veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick will likely be joining him. Cutting him outright saves Dallas $1.4 million of his $5.28 cap hit. That's not great, especially when it means losing a solid player.
If Scandrick is designated as a June-1st cut, the 2018 cap relief is $3 million and $1.6 million will go against the 2019 cap. This is better, but it comes with the downside that the $3 million isn't actually available until the calendar date of June 1st.
The same situation exists with Tyrone Crawford. Releasing him now saves only $1.8 million off of a big $9.1 cap hit. Make it a June-1st cut and it's $6 million saved in 2018, but again with the problem of not being usable until June 1st.
Freeing up more money for after June 1st isn't a bad thing, though. It can be used to sign your rookies or to sign players released from other teams at that time. It could go toward in-season contract negotiations with guys you don't want to hit free agency, perhaps like David Irving. If nothing else, any unused cap space rolls over to next season and offsets the deferred penalties.
As it stands, Scandrick looks like he'll be gone one way or another. Crawford is much tougher to predict as he's still a valuable rotation player who wouldn't be replaced easily. I think he stays one more year, allowing Dallas to cut him next season when there's way less salary cap penalty.
If the Cowboys really wanted to get hardcore, they could look at releasing Cole Beasley ($3.25 million saved) and Dan Bailey ($3.4 million). Both had down seasons in 2017. Beasley's replacement may already be on the roster in Ryan Switzer, and there are lots of ways to find a new kicker this early in the offseason.
Neither of these moves is expected, of course. But they are there, and cap friendly, if Dallas is truly desperate for spending room.
Last week I covered the Dez situation in more detail, but suffice to say that he presents the most important decision of the Cowboys' 2018 offseason.
Dallas can save $8.5 million by cutting Bryant. It's the most cap space they can clear with a single move. But with it comes the clear issue of losing your number-one receiver without anyone in place to take over.
There's no denying that Dez is not living up to his contract. How much of that is his own waning physical ability or the limitations of Dak Prescott and Scott Linehan is hard to say. But with the QB and the OC not going anywhere this year, Bryant is the one at risk.
The problem with losing Bryant is that you'd have to spend a lot to replace him in free agency, and then have an $8 million cap penalty on top of it. If you're not going to buy a new top receiver, can you afford to wait for the draft and hope is available?
What's more, can you trust a rookie to take on such a big workload right away?
This a real dilemma because the Cowboys are wanting to get back to championship contention. They want a return to their 2016 success, and they're going to need a lot more from the WR position to get it.
Dez Bryant can't be WR1 in Dallas anymore, for whatever reason you want to point at. But finding a new one is going to be difficult given the cap issues we've been discussing and the unknown nature of the draft. Given that, it makes cutting Bryant very risky.
I expect a move to come before free agency opens. So much of what happens this offseason hinges on the amount of cap space Dez occupies and what efforts the team may need to make to replace him. It will be hard to do business come next Thursday without resolving this matter first.
~ ~ ~
So yes, the Cowboys should be busy well before Thursday's deadline. We've discussed several ways the team can free up money and be able to conduct business in the weeks ahead. But with only six days to go, these things need to start happening if Dallas is going to be involved in the 2018 free agent market.
BREAKING: WR Terrance Williams Gets Dropped by Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have ended their six-year relationship with Wide Receiver Terrance Williams. According to multiple sources, they have declined a team option on Williams' contract and he will now be an unrestricted free agent in 2019.
The move will reportedly save the Cowboys $2.25 million in salary space this year.
Williams was the team's third-round pick in 2013 and started 68 of the 83 games he played in. He developed into a solid number-two receiver by the end of his rookie deal in 2016 and was given a new four-year contract that offseason.
Terrance Williams career w/ the Cowboys is done. Sources say the club has declined the WR's option for 2019, making him a free agent. The move is no surprise. He caught just 2 passes for 18 yards last season. His departure frees up $2.25 million on the cap.
After another decent year in 2017, things took a bad turn for Terrance last season. It started with an offseason arrest for public intoxication that eventually led to a three-game suspension, although Williams served that while on injured reserve.
The Cowboys already appeared to be giving Williams' spot away when they made several offseason acquisitions at WR; Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin all were brought in even before Terrance's arrest.
While Williams did start in two of Dallas' first three games in 2018, he only had three passes his thrown his way. The team finally put him on IR due to ongoing complications with a surgically-repaired foot.
While it didn't end well, Terrance Williams' time in Dallas was ultimately a solid return for a third-round pick. He made a few big plays and was a proficient run-blocker, good enough to start in almost 75% of the team's games since he was drafted.
The Cowboys now hope that another third-round pick, Michael Gallup in 2018, will do bigger and better things.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Wide Receiver
The Dallas Cowboys' year in 2018 was marked by big moves at wide receiver. Dez Bryant was released in April and then a first-round pick was traded in October to add Amari Cooper. Could this 2019 offseason offer anything close to that level of activity?
Unlike last season, Dallas should enjoy some stability in its starting lineup at receiver. Cooper returns at a much higher price, with the $13.9 million cap hit from his fifth-year option coming into player. Amari cost just $412k against the Cowboys' salary cap last year.
That huge jump in cap cost may hurt but Cooper backed it up with his Pro Bowl play in 2018. The top WR contracts average $15-$17 million per year, so even now Dallas is arguably getting Amari at a bargain.
The Cowboys didn't give up a first-round pick for a year-and-a-half rental, so we can expect them to seek a long-term extension with Cooper in the near future. With the contracts of DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott more immediate concerns, any new deal for Amari probably won't come until the middle of the season or in 2020.
Not only is WR1 set for next year but Michael Gallup appears locked in as the other starter. Of his 68 targets last year, 40 came in the second half of the year. It was a great season for a third-round rookie, and there are high hopes for Gallup's development in his first full offseason.
The stability up front is a blessing for the Cowboys, but it doesn't relieve them of big decisions at the WR position this offseason. They face a particularly critical choice when it comes to the free agency of Cole Beasley.
It's hard to believe Beasley's already been in Dallas for seven seasons. An undrafted gem, Cole has been one of the team's most reliable offensive players for some time. He led them in receiving in 2016 and has been one of the most efficient, QB-friendly options for the last several years.
Beasley's contract expiring this year is only one issue. He has become very vocal lately about wanting to be a bigger part of the offense. His targets dropped tremendously over the course of 2018, which was especially evident when Cole got just five total passes thrown his way in the two playoffs games.
If Beasley wants a larger role, does that also mean he wants more money? He was making a little over $3 million/season on his last deal.
With Gallup on a cheap rookie contract, Dallas could afford to pay raise Beasley's compensation a bit. But if they don't plan to use him more than they did last year, then perhaps the two parties just aren't a good fit at this point.
If Cole walks in free agency then the Cowboys will now have to find a new number-three receiver. The next best option would be Tavon Austin, but he is also a free agent. However, he could likely be re-signed for a fraction of what Beasley would want.
Austin has the physical skills to be an offensive weapon but he doesn't have the reliable hands that Beasley does. Even if Dallas wants Tavon back solely for his skills on punt returns, they may not be ready to make him a bigger part of the offense.
One option might be promoting Noah Brown, whose at times has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant with his physical playing style. His blocking ability would lend itself to the single-back formations Dallas likes to run out of, and he's flashed some good hands in limited opportunities.
In that scenario Amari Cooper would likely play out of the slot, which he's certainly capable of with his quickness. The same would be done if Dallas went with another internal solution, such as Allen Hurns or Terrance Williams.
That said, the Cowboys are unlikely to pick up the second-year option on Hurns' contract, not wanting to pay him over $6 million in 2019 after last year's low production. It also doesn't seem likely that they want to keep Williams after last year's issues.
Taking all of that into consideration, Dallas may very well be doing some WR shopping in free agency. Fortunately for them, it's a favorable market if you're looking for a slot receiver.
On top of Beasley and Austin already in the free agent pool, Golden Tate could at least match Cole's play if not potentially offer an upgrade. Baltimore's John Brown, Tampa's Adam Humphries, and Washington's Jamison Crowder are all other proven options. Emmanuel Sanders, while not currently a free agent, is a very possible cap casualty for the Broncos.
Guys like Humphries and Crowder are younger than Beasley and could provide better long-term value on their contract. That may be a more attractive option at this point for the Cowboys.
Dallas won't need to add a lot of bodies at WR thanks to a few young prospects. They still have Lance Lenoir and Cedrick Wilson under contract, plus signed 2015 second-round pick Devin Smith as a potential rehabilitation project.
But again, these guys are all just bodies right now. Lenoir has had his opportunities and not done much with them, though he does offer some value as a potential return man. Wilson spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
The Cowboys could still look at a receiver with one of their mid-round draft picks, but it's hard to get much production early there. Last year's play from Michael Gallup was a surprise for a third-rounder.
It's far more likely that Dallas will either work things out with Cole Beasley or pursue a veteran replacement in free agency.
So no, thankfully, we don't have to worry about any monumental changes at the top of the WR depth chart in 2019. But Beasley was more than just a third receiver, and keeping or replacing him will have a significant impact on the offense going forward.
If Dallas is truly ready to commit to Dak Prescott as the quarterback of the future then they can't take anything about his receiving options lightly. Therefore, wide receiver remains an important offseason focus for the Cowboys in 2019.
Defense, Not Offense, Should Be Dallas Cowboys Offseason Focus
Last week our own Brian Martin asked whether offense or defense should be the priority for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. We know that the team will look to make some additions on both sides of the football to help their team take the next step toward hopefully contending for a Lombardi Trophy in 2019.
Brian took the stance that the Cowboys front office brain trust of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay along with Head Coach Jason Garrett should prioritize the offensive side of the football.
Here’s what he had to say:
Surprisingly enough, the Dallas Cowboys really don't have any glaring needs on the defensive side of the ball either. After finishing as one of the top defensive units in 2018, they will have nearly all of their starters returning for the 2019 season. But much like on the offensive side of the ball, there could be two starting spots up for grabs...
...If Cole Beasley does indeed leave via free agency, that's a big blow to the passing game. But, it's not just him. Other than their rushing attack, the Cowboys offense was ranked in the bottom half of the league in nearly every other category. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan now gone we can hope that improves, but that doesn't mean improving the offense shouldn't be the Cowboys main offseason focus though.
Brian Martin - Inside The Star
I get his reasoning, though I disagree with the first point being made. Yes, the defense has a lot of really good players that are developing, but I think there a couple obvious areas where upgrades can be made. First, at safety, where Jeff Heath continues to be a frustrating player, as evidenced by the final play against the Rams. Secondly, the defensive tackle spot could definitely use an infusion of talent.
I believe the priority needs to continue to build on a defense that was surprisingly good, and downright dominant in their win over the New Orleans Saints, in 2018. However, despite finishing sixth in the NFL in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed, and fifth in rushing yards allowed, they were middle of the pack against the pass and had the sixth worst third down conversion percentage allowed.
They were a defense that got away with being excellent against the run and excellent in the red zone, allowing a touchdown only 51% of the time their opponent reached the red zone. They allowed the sixth fewest touchdowns in the NFL, and yet when they got into the playoffs, they weren’t nearly as good.
Sure, they held the Seattle Seahawks top ranked rushing attack in check for the game, holding them to only 73 rushing yards. The Seahawks threw for only 226 yards, but there offensive staff was insistent on running the football even though Russell Wilson was playing pretty well in the second half. The Seahawks were hitting the Cowboys for big plays that allowed them to make the game closer than it should have been. Had they tilted the run-pass ratio a bit more to put the ball in Russell Wilson's hands earlier in the game, it's possible that the game has a different outcome.
Against the Rams, we saw the Dallas Cowboys interior get bullied while both CJ Anderson and Todd Gurley rushed for more than 100 yards. Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were good for a lot of the year as the primary defensive tackles for the Dallas Cowboys, but with them ailing because of injury and illness, the Cowboys didn't have many answers for the Rams offensive interior. Their ineffectiveness in the divisional round led to Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee being generally ineffective as well.
While the Dallas Cowboys can feel pretty good about what the defense did last season, there's no way they can go into the 2019 season satisfied with what they'll be working with. In addition to playing the their NFC East opponents twice, with the Eagles and Giants able to score points and the Redskins typically a tough matchup, they'll play the New England Patriots, the Los Angeles Rams, the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings, the New Orleans Saints, and the Detroit Lions. All of those teams are capable of scoring a lot of points if the defense isn't having its best day. Throw in teams like the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and Chicago Bears, and you have three young offenses that are growing and fully capable of scoring points as well.
The Dallas Cowboys front office has to go into the offseason ready to make upgrades to their defensive personnel. With the safeties that are available this offseason -- Earl Thomas, Landon Collins, Tre Boston, Tyrann Mathieu, and several other intriguing names -- the Cowboys will have an opportunity to upgrade the safety position. Between the draft and free agency, defensive tackle will be a high priority position for the Cowboys.
I know that many are looking at the offense and the steps that they need to make moving forward to be legit contenders, and they do have some improvements to make, but they look to be a unit that is trending in the right direction. Some better coaching for Dak Prescott and the offense should help them moving forward. A full offseason for Dak to work with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz should improve the chemistry between Prescott and his top receiving threats.
Yes, there are areas that need to be upgraded on offense and they may have to deal with filling the gap left by Cole Beasley if he does leave. The front office, however, can't go into the offseason satisfied with where they sit on the defensive side of the football. They are building something and are a couple of pieces away from having a truly elite defense. Finding those couple of pieces -- a safety and a pass rushing defensive tackle -- are of the utmost priority this offseason if the Dallas Cowboys want to head back to the postseason in 2019.
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