Cowboys Capology: Defensive Tackles
The 2016 defensive tackle rotation was arguably the deepest the Cowboys have had in over a decade. Even with Tyrone Crawford being pulled to the outside to cover for injuries, Terrell McClain and Maliek Collins were an effective pair of starters. Cedric Thornton provided exceptional depth and another good rotation piece,
Terrell McClain now a free agent and the 2017 cap hits for both Crawford and Thornton have seen major increases. The DT position is now problematic and has questions that the Cowboys must answer.
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 tackles are scheduled to cost against the 2017 salary cap.
I recently went into a lot of detail about the problems with Crawford's contract and his unclear role on the defensive line. Check out that article for a full breakdown of his situation.
For now, we'll just agree that Tyrone Crawford's far from a $10 million player. With Brandon Carr gone, Crawford has moved into the top spot on the “bad contract” power rankings. The end of this article will discuss more about the Cowboys' options.
As I wrote back in September, Thornton was paid to be a starter but wound up on the bench through no fault of his own. Dallas didn't know that Terrell McClain would finally show up or that Maliek Collins was going to be a rookie surprise.
Thornton's cap figure is nearly doubling, increasing from $2.25 million in 2016. That's not ideal, but the good news is that his role may also be significant expanding.
If Dallas lets McClain walk as a free agent, Thornton will at least be the primary backup at both DT position. Plus, if Dallas were to make Tyrone Crawford a cap casualty or even keep him at DE, then Thornton could end up starting.
There is good reason to be excited about Maliek's upside. He has the athleticism to be disruptive against single coverage but also the size to occupy space. Collins has the tools to become a star in Rod Marinelli's scheme and, even as a rookie, has already shown signs that that day may not be far off.
If the Cowboys have enough faith in Collins, they can let Terrell McClain leave as a free agent without much concern. It may also given them the confidence to cut Tyrone Crawford, whose ideal position is the same “three-technique” spot that Collins plays.
Terrell McClain – While he was finally a productive player in 2016, the sum total of McClain's three years in Dallas was disappointing. Injury problems kept him either inactive or ineffective for two seasons. Even last year, McClain started off hot but lost ground to Maliek Collins and David Irving as the season wore on. Now turning 29-year-old, Terrell will likely be looking for a new team in free agency.
Richard Ash – Dallas signed Ash off of the Jaguars' practice squad for depth in their Week 17 finale, when several starters and veterans were resting. He is now an Exclusive Rights Free Agent and we have yet to see if Dallas wants to bring him back this offseason.
2017 Salary Cap Impact
Total Defensive Tackle Cap Hit = $15.43 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 9.11%
The good news is that Dallas may not need to add anymore defensive tackles. Along with Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, and Cedric Thornton there are some versatile guys like David Irving and Jack Crawford who can play DT when needed. The Cowboys may want one more big, space-eating player for the rotation but they probably won't need to spend big to get him.
The real question is what, if anything, they can do about Tyrone Crawford's big cap number. He is under-performing his contract, so is there a way out?
There is no benefit to releasing Crawford outright. His $10 million 2017 cap hit is roughly the same amount if he's released, creating no cap space. However, Dallas could use the June-1st provision and then Crawford would only count about $3 million against the 2017 cap, creating $7 million in relief.
The remaining $7 million in dead money would be deferred to 2018, which certainly isn't great. However, the likelihood that quarterback Tony Romo is being cut or traded means his $19 million in dead money will be falling off the books next year. Crawford’s dead money could be absorbed by that and still give $12 million in spending room.
That sounds pretty good, but there's one unfortunate caveat. Using the June-1st provision means the $7 million in 2017 cap relief wouldn't actually be usable until that calendar date. Therefore, Dallas couldn't spend any of it in the free agent market this March. It would be useful, though, as they look to sign their 2017 draft picks or work on some contract extensions.