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.
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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.