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.
Looking Ahead: Will The Cowboys Run The Table?
Only three more regular season games remain before we head into the NFL Playoffs. The Dallas Cowboys have turned their season around winning five straight and positioning themselves at first place of the NFC East. Once a 3-5 team, the Cowboys are currently one win away from clinching the division title.
In the midst of a five game winning streak, Jason Garrett's team is already being discussed as a legit threat in the NFC. Said discussions are the result from such a streak including a victory over arguably the best team in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints.
With three more games left to be played, the question I pose to you today is...
Can the Dallas Cowboys run the table?
After the Cowboys fell at home to the Tennessee Titans 28-14 in week 9, the schedule ahead did not look nice at all. The following five games included two matches against the defending Super Bowl Champions and division rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and a game against the high-powered offense from Drew Brees & Co. and well... we know how that story goes.
Now, the landscape is a bit different. The Cowboys seem to have only one more difficult game ahead of them. Let's take a look at each of Dallas' next opponents.
Week 15: @ Indianapolis Colts
This is easily the biggest challenge remaining. Similar to the Cowboys' recent success, the Colts have won six of their last seven football games. The offensive line has been able to keep the pocket clean for QB Andrew Luck who is finally back to his old self. Surely, they won't be intimidated by the Cowboys' being "hot" this past few weeks. Just last Sunday, they snapped the Houston Texans' nine game winning streak.
The Colts are averaging 29 points per game in their last 10 led by T.Y. Hilton in the receiving game, who might just be Byron Jones' biggest challenge yet due to his speed on the field. However, Indianapolis is far from perfect. That's the reason why the Jacksonville Jaguars left them scoreless a couple of weeks ago.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Cowboys this week will be playing on the road. Their recent success has been impressive, but they've played three consecutive home games. All things considered, this really is a very promising game. I'll lean towards the Cowboys to win this football game thanks to their great defense and Amari Cooper. It's worth noting that Colts' center Ryan Kelly could play on Sunday. If he doesn't though, DeMarcus Lawrence and the rest of the DL will make their presence felt constantly.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
Week 16: VS Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the 2018 NFL season. They've seen both versions of Ryan Fitzpatrick (the great one and the "why is he throwing so many picks?" one). They've gone back and forth again at the QB position between him and Jameis Winston. Right now, it seems like Winston is the guy who'll be leading the Bucs' offense for the rest of the season.
They surely seem like an easy opponent, but they're the same team that led the Saints 14-3 by halftime last Sunday. Their offense can be dangerous if the Cowboys are not careful. Cameron Brate at tight end is a player to watch out for when the Bucs visit AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys should get a comfortable win on this one, though. Tampa Bay's defense ranks 30th in the league in scoring and 20th against the run. Ezekiel Elliott will surely be fed.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
Week 17: @ New York Giants
By this week, it's hard to know if the Cowboys will rest starters for the playoffs or not. History tells us they won't, so we'll pretend that's the case. When these two squared off back in September, both were very different teams. Against one of the worst offensive lines in the league, it should be a fun game for the Cowboys' defense.
The Giants are 4-1 in their last five games, but don't let that record fool you. In that span, they've beaten the Josh Johnson-led Washington Redskins, the Chase Daniels-led Chicago Bears, the Bucs and the San Francisco 49ers.
The Cowboys should be able to win this divisional game fairly easily as they try to improve their execution before January football.
Prediction: Cowboys Win
To be quite honest, only the next game feels like a true threat to the Dallas Cowboys' winning streak. The Indianapolis Colts are an intimidating rival. In fact, they're the favorites in Vegas to get the win on Sunday. If Dak Prescott and his team are able to walk away victorious from said game, this team should go 11-5 on the season
That would be quite the ending for a team that had only three wins through eight games in week 9. They're really a new team. It's time to finish strong.
Is Scott Linehan Holding Playoff-Hopeful Cowboys Back on Offense?
Wide Receiver Amari Cooper means many things to the Dallas Cowboys. He is a token of change for a team that started the season 3-4 without him, and 5-1 since with their first win streak beginning in Cooper's second game at the Eagles. Cooper is the player this club promised they wouldn't need to compete this season, happily being proved wrong by the NFC Offensive Player of the Week for both weeks 12 and 14. Much more subtly, the 24-year old receiver is also the latest player to very publicly doubt Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan.
Cooper matched his season high 10 receptions in the Cowboys home win over the Eagles, hauling in the game-winning touchdown in overtime as his third score to go with a career high 217 yards. Seventy five of these yards came on one play, with Cooper getting behind the depleted Eagles secondary to put Dallas ahead 23-16 late in the fourth.
After the game Amari Cooper talked about his 75-yard touchdown and how he originally had a stop route but Dak Prescott gave him a hand signal to run a go instead.
Exclaiming "this is ridiculous" while watching the Cowboys offense at any point before trading for Cooper was a common occurrence. The Cowboys were playing with a struggling offensive line, receivers that couldn't separate, and frustrated quarterback being asked to carry way too much in a Linehan offense that also does him few favors.
It was Dak Prescott that warned Cooper to stick with Linehan's play call before giving in and throwing the touchdown.
If it took Cooper only six weeks to tell the media that opposing defenses are sitting on the Cowboys plays, it's almost certain he's noticed it much sooner. Where teammates have brought nothing but excuses for poor play, Cooper is a solution in and of himself, changing the play that helped lift the Cowboys to their fifth straight win.
With the Cowboys 75-yard overtime march to win the game on Sunday, Dallas finished with a season high 576 yards. After four quarters the Cowboys had 485 yards, which would still be their best output of 2018.
The emptiness in some of these yards starts with Linehan's play calling in the red zone. As I noted in Sean's Scout for Monday, Ezekiel Elliott's 40 touch performance saw just six attempts when the Cowboys were inside the Eagles' 20-yard line.
The Cowboys have the longest active win streak in the league, and also the lowest percentage of red zone touchdowns over their last three victories. It still feels like fantasy to be inking the Cowboys as NFC East champions-elect, with one more win confirming their spot in the playoffs.
This is exactly how much of the Cowboys coaching staff should feel about their ink on any contract extensions. Around Linehan, the Cowboys made several moves at the positional level entering the year. Jason Garrett's staff has at the very least earned the right to be evaluated at the end of the season, with Garrett credited for guiding his club through this ongoing revival.
For a team that expects to be playing single elimination games next month, the Cowboys offense is slowed down entirely too often to trust Linehan more than at any previous level. As if a reminder was needed, Linehan's job was under enough fire from all angles for Garrett to address his newfound "job security" during the bye week.
Garrett doused the flames of a report that he aimed to replace Linehan during the Cowboys week off. Head coach openings in Green Bay and Cleveland have opened since, with more to follow, decreasing the Cowboys chances at bringing in a top offensive mind in any capacity below HC.
Of course, it was also during this bye week that the Cowboys were integrating their offensive savior in Cooper. The latest challenge for the Cowboys comes from a Colts team back in the AFC playoff picture with a win over the Texans last week. Holding Deandre Hopkins to just four catches, the Colts have defended #1 receivers well.
Calling the defense for this Indianapolis team is none other than former Cowboys Linebackers Coach Matt Eberflus. At a point in their season where the Cowboys should be fine tuning both sides of the ball before a playoff run, their championship level defense runs the risk of being held back by an uninspired offense more so this week than any other.
Linehan has stepped up with his back to the wall before, and with the right players in his system (read: Amari Cooper, again) the results can follow. Trying to extend a five game win streak to six isn't exactly pressure territory for any coach in December, but the Cowboys offense has three weeks to show what their playoff potential will be with Linehan as the play caller.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
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