Cowboys Capology: Defensive Ends
Struggling to pressure opposing quarterbacks has been the Achilles heel of the Cowboys defense for several seasons. It has played a major role in early playoff exits in 2014 and 2016. Not since DeMarcus Ware has Dallas had a consistently great pass rusher at defensive end.
Given that this is a recurring weakness, it's no surprise that a pass-rushing DE remains at or near the top of everyone's offseason wish list. It could be hard to find in the draft at the 28th pick, so free agency may be the only way for Dallas to get immediate help. Unfortunately, that won't come cheap.
Before we dive into the specifics, let's look at the NFL's 2017 salary cap. The league announced that the cap would be set at $167 million for the upcoming season. Even though this is still a $10 million increase from last year, it's a few million short of what many were projecting.
Dallas Cowboys 2017 Salary Cap = $169.4 million
Now, using that number as our foundation, let's look at how much the Cowboys' defensive ends are scheduled to cost against the 2017 salary cap.
On the final year of his rookie deal, Lawrence needs everything to go right in 2017. His first three years in Dallas have had some highs but have been most disappointing. Lawrence only had one sack last seasons despite appearing in nine games.
Ongoing back problems limited Lawrence in 2016. There were several times that he was getting pressure or hitting the quarterback after the throw, but he just couldn't seal the deal on those all-important sacks.
Even if Lawrence finally has a breakout season, the Cowboys could be leery about signing him long-term. Their recent experience with Anthony Spencer was a good lesson about players who only show up in contract years. Lawrence needs to not only show up on the field but earn the coaches' trust with his character and work ethic.
Mayowa led the Cowboys with six sacks last season. That's not a great number on its own, but it helps to know that he got 3.5 sacks in just Weeks 13-16. If Mayowa's late-season production can translate to a full year in 2017, he could emerge as a major player on this Dallas defense.
The problem for Mayowa and the Cowboys is that he may not have done enough to discourage them from signing a big name in free agency. If Dallas does spend big on a pass rusher, it's Mayowa who might suffer the most from the lost playing time.
Benson wouldn't be released; still $2.2 million in dead money makes that worthless for the Cowboys. Still, getting buried on the depth chart is never good. Whether or not Dallas pursues a major DE free agent should have a lot to do with their belief in Mayowa's upside and how big a role they see him having next year.
Hit with a one-year suspension following the Cowboys Week 17 game, Gregory won't be able to play at all during the regular season. That means his current cap hit will go down significantly; $782k in base salary will be voided by the suspension. By the end of the year, Gregory should have only counted a little over $200k against the salary cap.
Taken 34 picks before Dak Prescott in last year's draft, Tapper remains an exciting prospect. He has rare athleticism for his size, posting one of the fastest 40-yard dash times ever for a player who weighs 270 pounds or more.
Tapper never got to play in the regular season because of a spinal defect that was discovered during the preseason. He has reportedly done the work necessary to get past it and is fully cleared to play next year.
Thankfully, Tapper still got all of the summer practices and training camp last year to build on. He'll still be a rookie in some ways, but that foundation should help him to hit the ground running.
Wood appeared in three preseason games for Dallas and then spent all year on their practice squad. He is not only capable of playing DE and DT but even has experience as a long snapper. He will almost certainly be back to compete in this year's training camp.
An undrafted free agent of the 49ers last year, Jones started as a 3-4 outside linebacker in their scheme. He has since spent time with both the Raiders and Rams before Dallas added him in January. The former Nevada Wolf Pack player will hopefully get a chance to show the Cowboys something this offseason.
David Irving – As an Exclusive Rights Free Agent, Irving can't go anywhere as long as Dallas offers him some kind of deal. Arguably the most exciting prospect on their defensive line right now, Irving is sure to get a contract. We'll go into more detail about what that might look like below.
Jack Crawford – The versatile Crawford was re-signed in 2016 to a one-year, $1.1 million contract. As always, he was a solid reserve and even had 10 starts as part of the base defense. A reliable player who can work inside or out on the line, I wouldn't be surprised if Dallas brought Crawford back again one a similar deal.
Ryan Davis – Signed after Week One for depth, the veteran never really got a chance to show much due to injuries. Even when healthy Davis failed to give the Cowboys much boost in their pass rush, which was why they brought him in. He is highly unlikely to return.
2017 Salary Cap Impact
Total Defensive Ends Cap Hit = $7.01 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 4.14%
These numbers will change in the coming month, though maybe not much. The first big question is how much Dallas will pay David Irving to return. His ERFA status gives the Cowboys nearly all of the leverage.
Dallas could give Irving the league minimum if they wanted to. However, if they see Irving as a potential long-term player for them, preserving a good relationship is also important. David just played on a $525k salary for 2016 and out-performed it, so Dallas might bump him up to the $1-$2 million range.
Remember, though, that Randy Gregory's cap number is going to drop from the suspension. That should offset some, if not most, of what Irving will make in 2017. Even if Jack Crawford is also re-signed, the total cap hit for the DE position shouldn't be much more $10 million.
If Dallas is going to make any “splash” signing in this free agent market, a pass-rushing DE is the first thing most would expect. The Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul is a name many are floating. Arizona's Chandler Jones and the Chargers' Melvin Ingram are also possible, though they may wind up getting the franchise tag.
The scary thing is that the market for a top name DE is very pricey. Last year, Olivier Vernon got a five-year, $85 million contract from the Giants. The first year of that deal counted $13 million against their cap.
Dallas can find ways to make a big signing work, but they would have to have supreme confidence in that player to take the financial risk. It could also mean being unable to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence next year if he does have a big season, which could leave you back in the same position of needing help.