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Cowboys Salary Cap: Defensive Tackles Have More Expense, Less Depth Than 2016

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Headlines - Spending on Defensive End is a MUST 1

Leading up to the March 9th start of NFL free agency, we will be looking at all Dallas Cowboys players under contract for 2017 and how much of the salary cap each position is taking up.

Position Breakdowns: SPECIAL TEAMS | RUNNING BACKS | SAFETIES | TIGHT ENDS | LINEBACKERS | GUARDS & CENTERS | OFFENSIVE TACKLES | DEFENSIVE ENDS | QUARTERBACKS | CORNERBACKS | RECEIVERS

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.

Confirmed 2017 Salary Cap = $167 million
Cowboys 2016 Cap Rollover = $2.4 million

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.

Tyrone Crawford Has Unclear Role, Bad Contract for 2017

DT Tyrone Crawford

Tyrone Crawford

2017 Cap Hit: $10.35 million

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.

Cedric Thornton

DT Cedric Thornton

Cedric Thornton

2017 Cap Hit: $4.25 million

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.

Maliek Collins, Buccaneers

DT Maliek Collins

Maliek Collins

2017 Cap Hit: $833k

At least one Inside The Star writer thinks Collins is about to have a breakout season. If Dallas agrees with him, then that could have a major impact on their offseason strategy.

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.

Free Agents

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.



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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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith

The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.

Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.

Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.

This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.

Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:

  1. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
  2. Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
  3. Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall

There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.

Joe Thomas, Cardinals

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas

Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.

Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.

Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.

One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.

It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.

Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?

But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?

~ ~ ~

OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS



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Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”

John Williams

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Did a Year Away Help Rejuvenate TE Jason Witten's Game?

There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.

Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?

It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.

"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason  (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."

Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW

Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.

Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.

While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.

In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.

They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.

Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.

There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.

If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.

And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.



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Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options

Matthew Lenix

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Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options

The Dallas Cowboys find themselves facing an interesting situation heading into training camp later this month. They've stockpiled enough talent on the offensive line that now they have multiple players who can play multiple positions. This is better known as "Position Flex" around the Cowboys team facility, and it's highlighted by Connor Williams and rookie Connor McGovern.

Williams was drafted in the second round in 2018 out of Texas. Even though he logged 28 starts at left tackle during his days in Austin, he was brought in to play left guard opposite All-Pro Zack Martin. As a rookie, he started the first eight games before suffering a knee injury Week 10 against the Titans. He struggled due to his smaller size and being a natural tackle, showing he definitely needed to bulk up if he wanted to start on the interior of the offensive line. His back up Xavier Su'a-Filo was serviceable in his absence.

However, he did start two games at right guard in place of Zack Martin and performed pretty decent. This gave him much-needed experience in case of an injury in the future. He's shown he can adjust and be a solid lineman at more than one spot.

When All-Pro Tyron Smith had veterans day off during OTAs, Williams was seen taking snaps at left tackle, his natural position. La'el Collins is the starter at right tackle but is currently in a contract year. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and with uncertainty, that he'll perform to the level needed to keep him as the starter or garner a big payday, the Cowboys have some insurance. This could create a situation where Williams is flexed outside if Collins hits the open market next year, only time will tell.

Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options 1

McGovern comes into the NFL with an advantage over his fellow lineman Williams. He was able to gain experience at multiple positions on the offensive line at Penn State. He started 21 games at right guard (9 as a freshman, 12 as a junior) and 14 games at center (13 as a sophomore, 1 as a junior). He's ideal to play on the interior seeing as he is naturally a little bigger than Williams, who had to pack on the pounds this offseason to deal with the responsibility of playing guard.

Now, the Cowboys can really see, if this is their thinking, who the five best guys are on the offensive line. If it were up to me, I would put Williams in direct competition with Collins for the right tackle position. This would allow McGovern to battle Su'a-Filo for the left guard spot. Also, with the health of All-Pro Center Travis Fredrick still up in the air, until the pads come on, McGovern's flexibility has added more insurance along with back up Joe Looney in case there's a setback before the season starts.

Multiple players with the skill set to move across the line if called upon. What more could you ask for as an offensive line coach? Plus, neither will be over the age of 22 during the season. The Cowboys have masterfully built the line of scrimmage on offense through the draft since 2011. Their dedication to dominating the trenches has them loaded with talent in said area. The only thing left is to wait for training camp to see where the chips fall.



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