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Cowboys 2018 Free Agency: What’s Left Before Market Opens?

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Headlines - 5 Cowboys Players That Could Be Traded
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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.

David Irving

Dallas Cowboys DL David Irving

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.

Travis Frederick

Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick

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.

Is Jason Witten Looking At A Lesser Role In 2017?

Dallas Cowboys TE Jason Witten (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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.

 

Zack Martin

Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin

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.

Orlando Scandrick

Dallas Cowboys CB Orlando Scandrick

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.

Dez Bryant

Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant

Dez Bryant

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.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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5 Comments
  • Travis Diggs

    “If Sean were to have more health issues this year” like every year?? Lol. Remember last off season when we lost Barry Church, this off season Hitchens will probably get payed and We’ll really miss him when Lee gets hurt again as he usually does. Release Hanna and please resign Hitchens so you can move on from Sean Lee next season.

    • Lucy Green

      I am making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people say to me how much money they can make connected so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my existence.
      :moytyo
      This is what I do……… JoinInfo94?/Com

    • Hector Espindola

      Well said!

  • Russ_Te

    I would not tie up any out-year $ at all on Witten. He looked close to
    done last year. I would tell him beforehand of his release for cap $,
    and let him know he’s back at NFL minimum if he chooses. Nobody is going
    to offer much more as a FA. Witten is well aware of crash endings in the NFL, and fool’s loyalty will keep you 8-8.

  • Russ_Te

    Since the Cowboys are in cap purgatory because of Romo (& past brilliant thinking on out-years), perhaps he will donate $10 million to the team… ;^)

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys Face Latest Challenge Fighting for First Road Win at Redskins

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Face Latest Challenge Fighting for First Road Win at Redskins

The Dallas Cowboys 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars feels like just the introduction to this season's story. Whether or not the body of this story tells a disappointing tale or one of triumph can be revealed as early as this Sunday.

When the Cowboys travel to Washington, they'll be looking for their first road win of the season, and with it the NFC East lead over a Redskins team that would fall to 3-3 and 0-1 inside the division.

Early season losses at the Panthers, Seahawks, and Texans do little in predicting the Cowboys faith at the Redskins. These three teams are a combined 6-2 at home this season, with the Cowboys most recent loss in Houston falling much more on coaching than it did on-field execution.

Making their week six win over the NFL's top defense look extraordinarily easy, the Cowboys continued on a seemingly timeless trend under Jason Garrett. Returning to AT&T Stadium at 2-3, the Cowboys won their 12th game at one under .500 under Garrett.

Their 378 total yards on offense against the Jaguars brought their average in three home games up to 363.3, nearly 88 yards better than their road performances this season. The Redskins have allowed 326.2 yards per game this season, ranked fifth in the league just behind the Cowboys at 315.2 yards a game.

Garrett has gone 11-4 in his head coaching career against the Redskins, winning his last five at FedEx Field by an average of less than 10 points a game. The Redskins have turned the ball over just five times this season and allow a stout 90.2 rushing yards per game, meaning this game has all the makings of another classic between historic NFC East rivals.

In an ongoing effort to learn just who these 2018 Cowboys really are, a close win on the road would go a long way, beyond the slack they were afforded earlier this season to tighten up their game and make a serious push for the division.

The Cowboys will be on their bye week following Sunday's game. It comes at the perfect time for players like Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, and Tavon Austin. With Austin struggling to make a sustained impact in the Cowboys offense, Awuzie conceding snaps to Jourdan Lewis, and Lee looking on at Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch dominate at LB, these three Cowboys among plenty of others know how important this game is for remaining relevant down the stretch.

Shortening this rivalry's history to just the games quarterbacked by Dak Prescott, the Cowboys are 3-0 with Prescott completing 65.3% of his passes - easily his highest mark against any NFC East foe.

The Cowboys confidence in getting to 4-3 should rest in Prescott using both his arm and legs to give the Cowboys the lead, than force Alex Smith to beat this defense.

The Redskins aren't a team that will beat themselves, leaving this one for the taking of a Cowboys team buried after week five's loss and crowned NFC East leaders 'elect' by week seven. A funny game this NFL is, and one the Cowboys don't want to play around with too much when considering Sunday's opponent - as well as the task at hand of earning a win on the road the latest in a season since 2013 for Dallas.

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Face Latest Challenge Fighting for First Road Win at Redskins" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

Cowboys Defense Getting Players Back at the Right Time

John Williams

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Could Any of These 3 Cowboys Disappoint Cowboys Nation in 2017?

The Dallas Cowboys have played really well on defense this season allowing the seventh fewest rushing yards per game, the third lowest yards per carry, and the eighth fewest passing yards per game this season. They've done it for most of the 2018 season without Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins and David Irving, and Linebacker Sean Lee, who's missed the last three games with a strained hamstring.

This week the Cowboys play the NFC East leading Washington Redskins, making this a very important matchup for the Cowboys playoff chances. The Dallas Cowboys are 2-2 in the NFC in 2018, so a win against the Washington Redskins on Sunday carries much more importance. If the Cowboys have hopes of making the playoffs, they're going to have to improve their record against the NFC and they can on Sunday with their defense getting back to (nearly) full health.

Still awaiting word on Chidobe Awuzie's availability for this week.

Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and David Ross have held up really well on the Cowboys defensive interior without Irving and Collins, which makes their return even more important. Better depth along the defensive interior is only going to help those guys have more productive snaps. Both Collins and Irving are explosive penetrating defensive tackles that give interior offensive lineman fits with their combination of strength and quickness. They play the run and pass with equal effectiveness and make life a lot easier for the linebackers and the defensive ends.

In their first game back in week six, Irving and Collins combined for two quarterback pressures, a quarterback hit (Irving) and a sack (Collins). Irving also drew a holding call on a punt.

Getting them back takes so much pressure off the defensive ends to generate pressure in passing situations. With better pressure from the interior of the defense, DeMarcus Lawrence and the other defensive ends will have better opportunities for sacks because opposing quarterbacks won't be able to step up in the pocket with as much ease as they have through the first five games of the season.

The linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch have been one of the best position groups for the Cowboys this season. As good as they've been, Sean Lee is still one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Though he's leading the Cowboys in solo tackles with 43, Leighton Vander Esch probably sees a decrease in his snaps with Lee returning. They'll all play, however, and the Cowboys will look for ways to have them all on the field together.

Getting Lee, Irving, and Collins on the field at the same time with the defensive parts that the Cowboys already boast in Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Byron Jones is going to make playing offense nearly impossible.

How do you attack these guys?

The Washington Redskins rank in the bottom third in passing yards, yards per attempt, and are 18th in the NFL in passer rating. Washington ranks in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game, but rank 23rd in yards per attempt.

If there's an area where the Dallas Cowboys defense has been susceptible this season it's against the pass and having all of their best defensive players available for this week seven NFC East matchup is going to make all the difference. They'll be able to generate pressure with fewer blitzes because of the ability of Irving and Collins to generate pressure from the interior.

Though the Redskins have had some success on the ground in 2018, it's going to be tough sledding for Adrian Peterson and the Redskins run game. Lee, Vander Esch, and Smith all play the run extremely well and with the improved talent at defensive tackle, Peterson is going to find very few open lanes against the Dallas Cowboys defense.

The elite defense that we imagined this team could be may be right around the corner. Having everyone healthy and on the field together as the Dallas Cowboys get ready for the stretch run of the NFL season is huge.

Get ready NFL. Points are going to be really hard to come by.



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Player News

Report: Austin Heading to IR: Deonte Thompson is the Next Man Up

John Williams

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Wide Receiver Deonte Thompson Making Preseason Debut Vs. Cardinals

Tavon Austin's stint with the Dallas Cowboys has been up and down through six games. He's provided some big play ability on the outside, but hasn't really had the running room on jet sweeps that the Dallas Cowboys would have hoped for when they acquired Austin from the Los Angeles Rams during the 2018 NFL Draft.

Now it's being reported by Brandon George from the Dallas Morning News that Austin may be headed to injured reserve for a groin tear suffered in the Dallas Cowboys week six win over the Jaguars.

Brandon George on Twitter

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said WR Tavon Austin will be getting a second opinion on his injured right groin in the next day or so. He didn't discount possibility of him being placed on injured reserve.

 

Whether Austin goes to injured reserve or not remains to be seen, but we do know that he'll miss week seven and likely won't be able to suit up for a while. Though Austin hasn't been relied upon much, he has been a threat that opposing defenses have had to account for in both the passing and running game. Tavon Austin leaves a bit of a hole.

Enter Deonte Thompson.

Deonte Thompson, who was signed by the Dallas Cowboys this past offseason, hasn't been the same type of rushing threat that Austin has been in his NFL career. Thompson's only carried the ball two times in his career for -5 yards. However, Thompson has some skills that could bode well should the Dallas Cowboys decide to use him in the jet sweep role that Austin is vacating.

He's been a return threat in his NFL career, averaging 24.8 yards per return. He's had returns of 47, 64, and 74 yards. He's also had some good moments running after the catch in his career, though he hasn't gotten many opportunities.

Thompson's a former track athlete and before the 2012 NFL Draft ran a 4.30 40 yard dash. He has the speed and a bit more size than Austin to make some things happen if given the opportunities.

The jet sweep has become an important staple in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Even when they don't hand it off on the sweep, they use it in play action, to set up screens, and even to get the defense thinking about it on direct hand offs to Ezekiel Elliott. They aren't going to want to scrap that part of the playbook just because Austin will be sitting out. Deonte Thompson can be that guy. Much like Marquise Goodwin in San Francisco, Thompson has elite speed.

He's not just football fast. He's fast-fast.

When I was in high school, I played baseball. In the baseball program I was fast. The fastest on the team. That was my game. Infield singles. Stretching doubles to triples. Stealing bases. I was fast. I went out for track my senior season because I thought, "hey I'm fast, let's see what would happen if I ran the 100-meter-dash." I found out really quickly that there is a difference between baseball fast and track fast.

The same applies to football and track. Deonte Thompson is track fast. He's a guy that the Dallas Cowboys need to get the ball to on those jet sweeps to continue to threaten defenses sideline to sideline. When it's working, as we've seen with Lucky Whitehead in the past and Tavon Austin this year, it opens up a lot for the Dallas Cowboys offense.

It's likely that Cole Beasley gets those first jet sweep attempts, and as a trusted veteran for the Dallas Cowboys, he probably should. But, if Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan want to continue to use the jet sweep to the offense's maximum benefit, they need to start showing it with Deonte Thompson. He has the speed to get to the corner and take it to the end zone from any where on the field.

Here's an example of what Thompson can do with the ball in his hands.

NFL on Twitter

109 YARDS TO THE HOUSE!!! Deonte Thompson returns the missed field goal and runs it all the way back for a @ChicagoBears TD! #CHIvsAZ https://t.co/k9IfkZMoIY

 

With Tavon Austin set to be out -- possibly for the season -- it's time to see what Deonte Thompson can do. The Dallas Cowboys need to get a win here to get above .500 for the first time this season and set themselves up to make a run at the divisional crown. Deonte Thompson's ability with the ball in his hands will give them a good opportunity to do just that.



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