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.
Cowboys Capology: Safeties
With Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox both becoming free agents, the Cowboys' safety position is very unsettled as the offseason nears. Right now the Cowboys' safeties are counting little against the salary cap, but this could change quickly depending on how the offseason goes.
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' safeties are scheduled to cost against our 2017 salary cap.
Now entering the third year of his rookie contract, Jones is becoming one of the best bargains on the Cowboys entire roster. He was arguably the second-best player on defense after Sean Lee in 2016.
While not as expensive as cornerbacks, great safeties can still make $10 million or more. Jones isn't elite yet but has already emerged as one of the better safeties in the NFL. The Cowboys have at least one more year before they have to worry about compensating him accordingly.
Would the Cowboys be willing to let Heath move into a starting role? It would certainly be financially advantageous.
Heath's three interceptions over the last two years is more than either Church or Wilcox has had despite significantly more playing time. Heath seems to have a nose for the ball and has proven he can complete the catch when opportunities come.
Still, Jeff Heath isn't new in town. 2016 was his fourth year with Dallas and yet he was still fourth on the depth chart. Interceptions aren't everything and, based on the rest of his game, Dallas may not see Heath as more than a quality backup.
We didn't see much of Frazier during his rookie year, only being active for nine games and getting minimal playing time when he dressed. Still, Dallas thought enough to keep Kavon on the active roster all season.
After the Cowboys used sixth-round picks to obtain both Frazier and cornerback Anthony Brown, Executive Vice President Stephen Jones said the team had fourth-round grades and high hopes for both players. We saw how Brown's rookie season went; the corner stepped in and played very well when Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick had injury problems.
Kavon Frazier didn't get those same opportunities, buried behind more experienced players at safety. Perhaps that will change in 2017.
The former quarterback was converted to safety after the 2016 preseason. You can understand why after seeing his work in special teams coverage. Showers is athletic and listed at 6'2" and almost 230 lbs., a natural size for a safety. Now wearing Darren Woodson's number 28, Showers will hope to find a new way to catch on with the Cowboys.
Barry Church - Coming off his best season yet but also turning 29, Church is hard to gauge as a free agent commodity. One website has him as the fourth-best free agent among safeties. How much will age and a potential "one-year wonder" label drive down his price?
J.J. Wilcox - Younger than Church but not nearly as proven, Wilcox could prove to be a steal for someone in this free agent market. Having only played one year of safety in college, Wilcox's development may have been delayed. Still, he's coming off his best season with Dallas.
2017 Salary Cap Impact
Total Safeties Cap Hit = $5.31 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 3.13%
Dallas faces some big decisions with Church and Wilcox hitting free agency. Both players had career-best seasons, but how much of that was thanks to playing next to Byron Jones and in a generally improved defense? Plus, how much did playing in a contract year boost their effort and performance level?
Last year, Barry Church counted $4.75 million against the Cowboys' salary cap. Dallas might try to do an extension that would keep his cap hit around that same amount, perhaps a three-year deal at about $15-$16 million. That would keep Church around until he turns 32, which is a good age to reassess his performance.
Right now, re-signing Church seems like the best of both worlds for the Cowboys. Free agents like Eric Berry or Jonathan Cyprien may not even be available if the franchise tag gets put on them. If they are on the open market then they will likely be getting $8-$10 million per year in their contracts.
At the other end of the spectrum is starting Jeff Heath, which is great for the salary cap but comes with significant risk to the strength of your defense. Only the Cowboys know how much faith they have in Heath to even take that chance.
The problem for the Cowboys' finances will be if guys like Berry and Cyprien do come off the market with the franchise tag or get re-signed quickly by their current teams. That would vault Barry Church near the top of the free agent pool and could drive his price up significantly. At that point, the questions about his age and anomalous 2016 performance become bigger concerns.
~ ~ ~
Will Dallas surprise us and spend big on a marquee name? Will they work out a reasonable extension with Barry Church, or perhaps even J.J. Wilcox? Will frugality lead to Jeff Heath getting a shot at the starting job?
Tune in this offseason for the exciting conclusion. Same Star time, same Star channel.
Cowboys Focused on Improved Communication to Solve Road Woes at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season. Not only do you already know this, but they do as well, needing to build off a 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 6 at AT&T Stadium to claim first place in the NFC East at the Washington Redskins.
Although the Cowboys were given Monday and Tuesday off, they are focused on addressing one alarming reason why the team has struggled so much on the road -- particularly on offense.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott pointed out the Cowboys lack of communication in early season losses at Carolina, Seattle, and Houston. "Seeing the same thing," was the issue Elliott addressed when discussing the Cowboys knowing their assignments in hostile territory.
Yesterday, Quarterback Dak Prescott told the media of a meeting between players and coaches that addressed this specifically.
Dak Prescott said players & coaches held a meeting before today's practice to "address the elephant in the room," which is poor communication among the offense on the road. "I know we'll take a lot from that conversation," The QB said.
Unlike Prescott's remarks about new "wrinkles" in the Cowboys offense prior to a 26-24 home win over the Lions, this has a tangible sign of progress for an offense that made scoring 40 on the Jaguars look impossibly easy. The Cowboys season high in total yards remains the 414 amassed against Detroit, after which Prescott confessed that he simply tells the media "things" that aren't necessarily true.
The Cowboys didn't necessarily do anything new against the Lions, but they most assuredly will this week against the Redskins, at least by way of signaling and remaining in sync on offense.
Prescott and Elliott's leadership is on full display here, and their on-field impact can be attributed as closely to the Cowboys successes or failures as any duo in the NFL.
Missing is a similar impact from Center Travis Frederick, who remains sidelined as he deals with GSB.
Joe Looney's play at center has been good enough to pave the way for Elliott's 586 rushing yards so far, second to Todd Gurley at 623 yards, but his ability to call checks for the offense is understandably much more limited.
Looney deserves all the credit in the world for his strong play in place of Frederick. The Cowboys have never asked for him to be anything he isn't, a reliable depth option that earned a second contract and with it the starting center job for the time being in Dallas.
He has the full support of his teammates, Frederick included. All of this is lovely to put down in writing until Looney and the Cowboys have been forced to step on the field with the crowd against them and attempt to sustain a drive, something Frederick will unfortunately not be a part of for a long while.
If the Cowboys offense isn't going to unveil new wrinkles in the scheme, there is one wrinkle worth mentioning that's new to the team's communication on offense this season. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan up in the box, his play calls are sent down to first-year Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore, who has been in the ear of Prescott ever since playing with him from 2016-17.
Sure, these are things that could've been addressed before the Cowboys managed only eight points in week one, turned the ball over three times in week three, or punted away their best chance at victory in week five. The best teams in the league likely already have these things down to routine, and few would consider the Cowboys anywhere near the upper echelon of the NFL.
Following sixty minutes of football at a division rival they've won four in a row against, with an even more impressive five game win streak at the Redskins, the Cowboys could control their own path atop the NFC East.
That feels truly incredible for such a young team faced with a steep learning curve early in the season, adjusting to it on the fly as they prepare to leave everything on the field before a bye week.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
Cowboys WR Tavon Austin Skipping Surgery, May Return in 2018
A groin injury sustained last week against Jacksonville won't send Tavon Austin to injured reserve, at least for now. The Dallas Cowboys receiver has elected to forego surgery at this time, giving him a chance to return to action in 2018.
There was concern that Austin could land on IR initially following the Jaguars game, but he sought a second opinion this week. It appears that this new information was enough for Tavon and the Cowboys to decide that surgery can wait.
Sounds like WR Tavon Austin will not have surgery at this time after getting a second opinion on his groin injury. He could miss a few weeks, however. #cowboyswire
Austin should miss this Sunday's game with the Washington Redskins. He has been the team's punt returner this season and a useful tool on offense, playing mostly receiver but also lining up the backfield at times.
Despite his limited opportunities, Tavon is tied with Cole Beasley for the team lead with two receiving touchdowns in 2018.
How long Austin will remain out is unknown at this time. After the Washington game, Dallas will have their bye week and then host the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football.
Both of these are games that the Cowboys, feeling good after a blowout victory over Jacksonville, should be able to win without Austin. But they would certainly like him back for the Week 10 road game with the Philadelphia Eagles.
In Tavon's absence, Cole Beasley will likely field punts. We may see more of Deonte Thompson in the speed routes that Austin ran on offense, though Dallas could also finally see what recently returned Brice Butler has to offer.
With an expiring contract this year, Tavon will likely want to get back soon and trying to improve his stock for the 2019 offseason. Hopefully, he can still have a positive impact on his value and the Cowboys season in the weeks ahead.
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