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Cowboys Salary Cap: Jason Witten is Beloved, but Burdensome

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Blog - Tight End is a Bigger Need Than We Realize

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 | LINEBACKERS | GUARDS & CENTERS | DEFENSIVE TACKLES | OFFENSIVE TACKLES | DEFENSIVE ENDS | QUARTERBACKS | CORNERBACKS | RECEIVERS

Cowboys Capology: Tight Ends

It's a dangerous thing to speak ill of any fan-favorite player, no matter how factual, logical, or benign the negative commentary is. What's more, perhaps no Cowboy has been more beloved over the last 15 years since Jason Witten. But unfortunately, the NFL salary cap doesn't care about players' legacies.

So yeah, we have to talk about this stuff. I get that it won't be easy to hear some of it. As Samuel L. Jackson once warned us:

"Hold on to your butts."

Recent years have left Cowboys fans painfully aware of how difficult it gets to handle aging stars and their contracts. DeMarcus Ware and Tony Romo stand out as examples of how players, no matter how beloved, eventually can't live up to the massive salaries their past greatness created.

While not quite as severe as Romo or Ware, Jason Witten's situation is comparable. Like most aging players, Witten's becoming increasingly expensive while his effectiveness is slowly declining. As the gap widens, the burden on the team logically grows.

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' tight ends are scheduled to cost against our 2017 salary cap.

Jason Witten

TE Jason Witten

Jason Witten

2017 Cap Hit: $12.26 million

Currently, Witten is scheduled to have the highest salary cap hit of any tight end in the NFL. Many Cowboys fans won't even blink at that; Witten is beloved and even hinting that he's overpaid is perceived disloyalty by some.

Still, the fact is that Witten had his lowest yardage total since his rookie season. He is still a fabulous route runner and great starter, but his days of being the team's second-best receiving option, and even its primary weapon at times, are gone.

It's not all on Jason Witten's age. Changes in the Cowboys offense have contributed to his declining role. Going from Tony Romo to Dak Prescott immediately hurt Witten's value, his chemistry with Tony being such a huge asset. Also, Cole Beasley has emerged as another security blanket and may have better rhythm with Prescott at this point that Jason does.

There's no escaping the reality that Witten's 2017 contribution likely won't measure up to that big cap hit. However, given his legacy with the team, it's something that we'll probably just have to live with.

James Hanna

TE James Hanna

James Hanna

2017 Cap Hit: $3 million

Dallas re-signed Hanna last year as a free agent and paid him well to stick around. Hailed as the best blocking tight end on the team, he never got to contribute as a knee problem kept him out the entire season and eventually led to surgery.

The Cowboys clearly thought highly of James Hanna last year based on the contract he received. His blocking ability will be even more valuable now as Dallas focuses on their rushing attack with Ezekiel Elliott. Exceptionally athletic for his size, Hanna could also finally see some looks in the passing game as Witten's primary backup.

Geoff Swaim

TE Geoff Swaim

Geoff Swaim

2017 Cap Hit: $629k

It was Swaim, rather than Gavin Escobar, who took advantage of James Hanna's injury and improved his status. Geoff not only emerged as a solid blocker but had a few solid receiving plays. Sadly, a pectoral injury cut his season short at just nine games.

Returning on the third year of his rookie deal, Swaim should be a valuable depth player with some yet undecided upside. He has already exceeded expectations for a seventh-round pick; another testament to the fine work that Will McClay and the scouting department are doing.

Rico Gathers

TE Rico Gathers (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Rico Gathers

2017 Cap Hit: $465k

The former Baylor basketballer survived a year on the practice squad without getting signed away. Dallas hopes that the intriguing 6'8" prospect can now contend for a roster spot after a year of coaching.

Free Agents

Gavin Escobar - The former second-round pick had dropped to fourth on the depth chart last preseason. Clearly, Dallas had moved on from Escobar and might have even released him last August if not for James Hanna's injury.

Even once Hanna and Swaim were out and Gavin Escobar was back behind Jason Witten, there was no change in his lack of offensive role from previous seasons. Now that his rookie deal has expired, Escobar will enter free agency and hope that a team remembers him from the 2013 draft.

2017 Salary Cap Impact

Total Tight Ends Cap Hit = $16.35 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 9.65%

The big question is if there's anything Dallas can do to bring down Witten's $12 million cap figure. He's still owed $4.8 million in guaranteed money on the current contract. That might make him a potential cap casualty in New England, but we know that the Cowboys are not going to pull that trigger.

Restructuring isn't currently available since there are no future years to push money into. That leaves just two options:

  1. Jason Witten agrees to a basic pay cut, lowering his $7.4 million in base salary. We saw cornerback Brandon Carr do this last year, but he was looking at being released if he didn't agree to the reduction. Witten doesn't have that same fear so may not be motivated to give away money.
  2. Witten and the Cowboys could agree on a contract extension. That would give them the future years needed to convert his base salary into bonus money and spread things out. Even if Witten retires after 2017, deferring some of this year's costs to next season could be beneficial.

One thing we know for certain is that Witten, the consummate teammate, is as happy to do something to help the Cowboys as any player would be. He may be willing to work something out that is mutually beneficial.

Leverage versus loyalty; the ultimate conflict for both players and their teams. It can leave hurt feelings for everyone involved, including the fans. It's another element that makes the NFL offseason so compelling.



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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Undrafted WR Jon’Vea Johnson Turning Heads at Cowboys OTAs

Brian Martin

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Undrafted WR Jon'Vea Johnson kept turning Heads at OTAs

Former Toledo Wide Receiver didn't receive an invite to the 2019 NFL Combine or hear his name called in any of the seven rounds at this year's NFL Draft, but that doesn't mean he doesn't possess the talent to make someone's roster in the league. After signing with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent, he's hoping he's found that team and his forever home.

The journey for Jon'Vea Johnson to earn one of those coveted final 53-man roster spots with the Dallas Cowboys is going to be a long one. This year's roster is deep from top to bottom, which means making it as an undrafted free agent is going to be extremely difficult. But, luckily for him he is already starting to turn a few heads at the Cowboys OTAs.

Here's what Cowboys Wide Receiver Coach Sanjay Lal recently had to say about Jon'Vea:

"Not a surprise, because we loved his film, but Jon'Vea the last two days, his speed and athleticism and how smooth he is has shown up here – almost a little bit earlier than we thought it would. Because we think he's going to process. Most young guys are thinking a lot, but he's done a good job of learning his plays and coming out and showing what he can do."

Considering coaches typically try their hardest not to single out any one player in these OTA practices, that's pretty high praise from Sanjay Lal.

It's important to remember the Dallas Cowboys had Jon'Vea Johnson in as one of their 30 pre-draft visitors, so you know they had a draftable grade on him already. Getting him as an undrafted free agent probably felt like a win for them, and more so now that he's off to a good start.

Johnson actually has a few things going for him that may set him apart from other WRs currently on the Cowboys roster. He has the versatility to play on the outside or in the slot, but it's his speed that really makes him stand out from the rest.

At his Pro Day, Jon'Vea ran an unofficial 4.38 40-yard dash. That would've ranked among the best to run the 40 at this year's Scouting Combine. But that's not all… he tested pretty well in other areas as well: 35" vertical and a 10'8" broad jump. Not bad for a 5'10", 190 pound undrafted wide receiver.

As good as all of this sounds, Johnson still has a long ways to go in order to lock down a roster spot. The Cowboys have some pretty talented WRs on the roster and he's going to have to clearly outperform quite a few of them to earn his way onto the final 53-man roster. But, it's encouraging he's already off to a good start.

We've seen players stand out in these kind of unpadded practices before, so I'd probably hold off on anointing him just yet. For his sake though, it's always a good thing to catch the eye of your coaches in a positive way.



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5 Biggest X-Factors for 2019 Dallas Cowboys

Jess Haynie

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Chidobe Awuzie

As the Dallas Cowboys have put together this 2019 team, they have a mix of constants and variables that will hopefully produce a winner. Today, we're going to look at those x-factors; the players or other circumstances who have a wide range for potential impact. How could these potentially swing the results for this season?

Constants are guys like Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Ezekiel Elliott. If they're on the field then they're some of the best at what they do. I also believe that we'll continue to get Pro Bowl play from the likes of Dak Prescott, Byron Jones, Leighton Vander Esch, and other studs from last season.

As for the x-factors, the biggest every year, for every team, is health. One bad injury can take a 12-4 contender down to a 4-12 weakling, as the Cowboys experienced in 2015.

We're not talking about health issues or suspensions today. Assuming all of our projected players are present and playing, whose impact on the field could create the biggest swing from 2018 to this season?

Our list contains two new additions from free agency who could cause some big ripples. There are also two returning players whose continued development could work wonders. And then there's also a change in Dallas' coaching staff, which you likely have just guessed, that could have the biggest impact of all.

In fact, let's start there.

Kellen Moore

Dallas Cowboys OC Kellen Moore

Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator

Will the Cowboys' change at OC lead to a more explosive, less predictable offense? They must think so, having handed the job to Moore despite his having only one year of experience in a coaching role.

Scott Linehan's run was far from bad. Over his five seasons the Cowboys won three division titles and two playoff games. The only losing season was when they lost Tony Romo in 2015 and didn't have a Dak Prescott to replace him.

But Linehan's tenure was also marked by an offense that every armchair coach in Cowboys Nation could predict. There was little razzle and even less dazzle; Dallas ground out wins on the strength of the run game and offensive line.

The old school approach works up to a point, as we've seen with four winning seasons out of the last five, but is it really the best way to go? The fact that all four teams in conference title games last year, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New England, and New Orleans, have more modern-styled offenses should tell you something.

It seemed to tell the Cowboys something, leading to the switch from Linehan to Moore. Will Kellen get more creative with the versatile skills that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott offer? Will he actually throw some passes to a fullback with receiving ability like Jamize Olawale? What about gimmick players like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard?

If Moore is the real deal as an offensive guru, this Dallas offense could do some special stuff in 2019. It would be the biggest personnel change of the offseason, on or off the field.

Dallas Cowboys Finally Make a Splash with Robert Quinn Trade

Dallas Cowboys DE Robert Quinn

DE Robert Quinn

It's been a long time since Dallas had two true studs at defensive end; DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer were the last pair that could consistently threaten from both sides. By signing veteran Robert Quinn to be DeMarcus Lawrence's new wingman, the Cowboys are hoping to restore that dynamic.

Still just 29 years old, Quinn should have plenty offer. He's been a double-digit sack man three times in his career and has averaged 7.5 sacks over the last two seasons.

Last year, Dallas got solid play from Tyrone Crawford and Randy Gregory at times but they weren't consistent enough. Quinn not only bring a greater track record for pass rushing, but he doesn't present any of the current problems that Crawford or Gregory have with legal issues and/or possible suspensions.

That said, Quinn does have plenty of  NFL mileage at this point. He has shown some decline the last few years, and if that continues then he may not make the impact we're hoping for. In that case, Dallas pass rush may look the same as it has the last few years.

Lawrence has been great, but we saw the Cowboys' inability to get to Jared Goff in their playoff loss to the Rams. There were zero sacks that day for Dallas, and only one QB hit (Jaylon Smith) the entire game.

If the Cowboys want to get back to the NFC Title game then they need more. Hopefully Robert Quinn can bring it.

Randall Cobb

Dallas Cowboys WR Randall Cobb

WR Randall Cobb

As I said before, Amari Cooper should be as good as ever now that he gets an offseason to work with the team. Michael Gallup's progress from a strong rookie season is already reportedly on point. That leaves Cobb, the free agent replacement for Cole Beasley, as a major x-factor on offense.

Losing Beasley has the potential to hurt this team far more than we want to admit. He was Dak Prescott's security blanket for three years; his favorite receiver when the going got tough. No player was more trusted to get open, make the catch, and fight for the needed yards.

That sort of pressure won't be put all on Randall Cobb's shoulders. Cooper and Gallup will be a better pair to work with than any Beasley ever had. They will help mitigate the risk that Cobb has lingering injury issues, or doesn't acclimate quickly to his new offense.

But as the Cowboys hopefully shift to a more modern and innovative offense, Cobb brings valuable experience from his time with the Packers. He was part of six playoffs teams, and made many key plays to help Green Bay have sustained success during most of his time there.

If healthy, Cobb has the skills to replace Cole Beasley and perhaps even eclipse him. He was once a 1,200-yard receiver as the second option behind Jordy Nelson.

If he still has that gear in him, the combination of Cobb, Cooper and Gallup may give Dallas the most dangerous trio of receivers it's seen in decades.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly From Cowboys Wild Card Victory 1

Dallas Cowboys CB Chidobe Awuzie (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

CB Chidobe Awuzie

Switching Byron Jones back to CB last year proved a strong move, helping Dallas get to the playoffs and getting Jones to his first Pro Bowl. The Cowboys are hoping that Awuzie, entering his third season, will emerge as another standout performer at cornerback.

Awuzie, the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2017, had a slow start in his sophomore year but improved as the season went along. He should compete with Anthony Brown for the starting job, and at the least be Dallas' nickel CB this season.

With the Saints, Packers, Patriots, and Rams all on the 2019 schedule, plus two games with the Eagles, the Cowboys need a solid secondary. They need to make opposing QBs think twice about which side of the field they want to try and throw to.

Awuzie has flashed his potential these first two seasons, but now it's time to keep it on full display. Year Three is when most guys, and especially one taken in the second round, should be blossoming into the players they're going to be for the long haul.

If Chidobe takes that next big step forward then Dallas' defense could be the best in the league. The compound effect of improved coverage and a stronger pass rush would have exponential benefits.

Blake Jarwin, Giants

Dallas Cowboys TE Blake Jarwin

TE Blake Jarwin

If Jarwin can do anything close to his Week 17 performance over the course of an entire year, he'd be one of the top tight ends in the game. That's the excitement level some have around the assumed 2019 starter.

Blake's not going to have those kind games often. The Giants were barely playing in that finale, likely already focused on how to screw up their draft. But it did give us our first full taste of Jarwin's receiving skills and athletic potential.

The Cowboys and Jason Witten swear that the returning legend is only here to support and help, and that the majority of snaps will still go to the young talent. If Jarwin can build on last year, and learn some things from one of the all-time greats, he could be a major new weapon in the 2019 offense.

Also helping could be the switch Kellen Moore as coordinator, who will hopefully find more creative ways to utilize all players. Perhaps we'll see Jarwin line up in spots that Scott Linehan never thought of, or was just never able to use while he still had Jason Witten in his twilight years.

Whether it's Jarwin or Dalton Schultz, Dallas will hopefully get some more firepower out of the TE position this year. As teams hopefully focus on stopping guys like Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, we could see huge plays by the tight ends if they're able to take advantage.



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Kellen Moore on Jon Gruden’s QB Camp Reveals Offensive Philosophy

John Williams

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Kellen Moore

When Kellen Moore left Boise State for the NFL, he was the winningest quarterback in college football history with 50 wins in four seasons as the Broncos signal caller. Moore was a great college quarterback and was a part of an offense that took advantage of the things that he did really well; reading the defense and throwing with accuracy and anticipation.

Jon Gruden when he was with ESPN brought quarterbacks in from each draft class for a film session and to work out on the field.

Kellen Moore On ESPN 's Gruden's QB Camp

Boise State Quarterback, Kellen Moore went on Jon Gruden's QB Camp show. Watch the full episode here.

Since Kellen Moore was promoted to offensive coordinator from quarterbacks coach, we've been trying to decipher what his philosophy might be. Moore himself gave us some insight when he talked about wanting to be "multiple" on offense. Basically, Moore wants to present similar concepts throughout the game plan but use formations and personnel groupings to provide variation and to keep defenses off balance.

If you have the time, go watch Moore's segment from Jon Gruden's Quarterback camp. It is pretty enlightening.

Here are a few highlights from the segment.

Multiple

Multiple is a word we heard Kellen Moore use last week when asked to describe his offensive philosophy and he used it again in his interview with Jon Gruden.

The goal is to make the offense look as confusing as possible to the defense. Of their offense at Boise, Moore said, "it's a lot of the same concepts, a lot of ways of doing the same thing." Meaning they might run the same concepts out of 12 personnel that they run out of 11 or 21 personnel. The play concepts don't get diverse or complicated, the formations and personnel groupings are what gets diverse and complicated. Regardless of the formation, the offense will look similar. All in the hopes of keeping the defense guessing.

"Anticipation is built Monday through Friday."

Jon Gruden highlighted a play where Kellen Moore through a shallow post to a wide receiver that wasn't yet on the screen yet. Moore saw from the defensive alignment that the player would be open and was able to get the ball to the spot where the wide receiver could run under it and get the ball.

If there's one thing that's been a bit of a knock against Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott is that he struggles with anticipation. More often than not, he has to see it open before he throws it. This is an area that Kellen Moore and even new Quarterbacks Coach Jon Kitna can help Dak.

If Dak can starting seeing receivers open before their open and throwing it before they come open it would be a huge step in his development as a quarterback. Moore's use of pre-snap motion and formation variation will help Dak to diagnose the defense and know where to go with the ball before the ball is snapped more often.

Use of Pre-snap Motion

During the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams, it looked like the Rams were using presnap motion on just about every play. With Moore on board, it looks like the Cowboys are going to be taking a similar approach, and for Moore and for offenses that use a lot of pre-snap motion, there's a purpose.

Moore described that each motion is designed for a specific purpose on each play. They used motion to try and gain an advantage. One way they could gain an advantage by using presnap motion is to force the defense to show a tell on the coverage they're in. Using pre-snap motion also helps them find more favorable matchups.

One thing that I found interesting is that then Boise State Head Coach Chris Peterson put the team through a shift and motion period at the beginning of each practice so that everyone would know their motions and the purposes behind them.

Another purpose in using presnap motion was as Gruden noted, "when there's communication, there's miscommunication." Sometimes players get the right checks when a player goes in motion, but sometimes the motion can leave a player wide open for a big play because of miscommunication.

Expect the Dallas Cowboys to use a lot of pre-snap motion with all of their personnel. The wide receivers and tight ends will be coming across the formation and you'll see the running backs motioning in and out of the backfield.

All in the hopes of finding a favorable look.

In the Red Zone

Gruden asked Kellen Moore, "How come at Boise State you have so many gadget plays in the red zone?" Moore responded to be "creative, open to different ideas, concepts" and they "do a great job of game planning."

If there's an area where the Dallas Cowboys struggled consistently throughout the 2018 season it was in the red zone. They were one of the worst teams in the NFL at scoring points inside the 20-yard line.

Getting creative with their play calling in the red zone can help keep teams off balance and not just honing in on Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. Trick plays or gadget plays can help open things up in the middle of the field for the running game by forcing teams to think about the boundary and the passing game.

One thing I noted from watching some Kellen Moore highlights recently was how many touchdowns they scored using play action. It wasn't every play, but it felt like it. With the run game that the Dallas Cowboys have, play action can be an incredible weapon if they were to open it up and use it more frequently.

In the red zone in particular, when teams are so concerned with Ezekiel Elliott, using play action to pass could lead to some easy scores.

If the Dallas Cowboys want to get back to the playoffs with hopes of making a run at the Super Bowl, they have to get much better in the red zone. You can't settle for field goals as frequently as they did in 2018 and expect to win a lot of games.

Other Interesting Notes

Gruden highlights it on the show, and I found it fascinating that Boise State would flex out their left tackle into the slot and sometimes out wide beyond the hash mark.

When asked about it, Moore said, "his job is to occupy space." What it does is create misdirection by getting the defense to think about what that left tackle is doing out there. On one play in particular, it led to an all-out blitz by the defense and Moore hit them for a touchdown on a vertical route.

I don't imagine we're going to be seeing Tyron Smith lined up in the slot, but it's a sign of the potential creativity that comes with Kellen Moore. Even Gruden admitted he'd never seen that formation before.

One of the other notes that I found particularly interesting was the way they used silent counts. Often we see quarterbacks use their leg to signal to the center that they're ready for the ball. Sometimes, it's the center turning his head that indicates the snap is coming. At Boise State, they used leg kicks, one hand, two hands, and the center head bob to keep the defensive line from guessing the snap count.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

It remains to be seen if Kellen Moore is going to be a good offensive play caller in the NFL, but from what we know about him to this point, it's going to be exciting and fun to find out. The goals of his offense appear to be to find mismatches, create confusion, use misdirection, and be able to anticipate where to go with the football.

Moore's greatest strengths as a quarterback were his football I.Q., his preparation, his ability to communicate with the offensive coordinator and the rest of the offense, and their ability to make in-game adjustments. If he's able to help Dak Prescott see the game better, anticipate where to go with the ball better, make quicker decisions, and help the offense be better in the red zone, the Dallas Cowboys could have an unstoppable offense in 2019.

We don't know if they'll be able to do those things, but after hearing Moore talk about offensive football, I'm ready for the Dallas Cowboys to line up in September so we can find out.



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