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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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Could OC Kellen Moore Be More “Vanilla” Against Dolphins This Week?

Kevin Brady

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Kellen Moore, Jason Garrett, Dak Prescott

The Cowboys are sort of in a no-win situation this Sunday.

If they come out and dominate the openly tanking Miami Dolphins, they'll have done exactly what they should do. But, if they lose to this putrid roster or lose one of their key players to injury, then this week three game would be considered a disaster.

So how should the Cowboys approach the Miami Dolphins?

Something tells me that new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore may look more "basic" than usual this week. Heralded for his creativity over the first two games, Moore may not want to show too much against the lowly Dolphins. Especially if the Cowboys can simply impose their will, a la the 2016 offensive gameplan.

Running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard should expect a lot of inside and outside zone opportunities this week, with each having a chance to have their best individual performances of the season. Tight end Blake Jarwin and wide receiver Devin Smith could see a lot of opportunities through the air as well, as the Cowboys may want to avoid putting Amari Cooper in situations which could cause injury.


Kellen Moore may want to come out firing with Dak Prescott and this dynamic passing game at first to get a quick lead, and then look to shorten the game as much as possible with his running game.

Honestly, as much as Cowboys Nation may not like it, I wouldn't be shocked if Miami covered this lofty 23 point spread. Dallas could look to get up a couple touchdowns, then proceed to sit on the ball and just look to get out of the stadium alive. Especially considering that the schedule gets much more difficult in the weeks following this Miami game.

With key NFC matchups against the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, and Philadelphia Eagles looming large, health is the most important factor this week against the Dolphins.

Well, health and winning, of course.


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11-Personnel Success Key to Dallas Cowboys Offensive Explosion

John Williams

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Brees Out for 6 Weeks, How Much Will Cowboys Win Streak Last?

When Kellen Moore took over as the offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys a lot of expectations came that he would improve the offense. Though a lot of the parts coming into 2019 were the same as 2018, the anticipation of improvement was more about what Kellen Moore's mind would bring to the table.

From Moore's first interview with the press about his offensive philosophy to the preseason to the Cowboys victories in their first two regular-season games, the Dallas Cowboys look like a much different team. One area where the Dallas Cowboys are finding much more success in 2019 compared to last year, is in their success using 11-personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, and 3 wide receivers).

As the NFL has evolved and began adopting more spread concepts into the offensive gameplans, 11-personnel has become the predominant formation in the league. 19 of the NFL's 32 teams use 11-personnel more than 60% of the time and 14 of those teams run it at least 70% of the time. The Dallas Cowboys are one of those as they deploy 11-personnel at a rate fo 73%.

The reason 11-personnel has become so popular is that it doesn't give away run-pass tendencies quite like two or three tight end formations typically signify a run or like a four or five wide receiver set can signify a pass. With the rate tight ends and running backs are catching the football in the modern NFL, this formation allows teams to hide their intentions before the snap. Many teams, the Dallas Cowboys included may start out with the tight end lined up next to the tackle and the running back in the backfield and then motion those players out into an empty backfield set with a spread look. This formation allows the Dallas Cowboys and other teams to give defenses multiple looks out without having to change the personnel grouping.

The Dallas Cowboys offense led by Kellen Moore calling the plays and Dak Prescott at quarterback has taken a significant step forward as an offense and a lot of that is because they've increased their use of 11-personnel and their efficiency when deploying it.

In looking at some of the data from last year to this year, we're going to be looking at Warren Sharp's Football Stats and success rates. Sharp Football Stats defines a successful play as one that, "gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down." So even if a run on 3rd and 10 goes for nine yards, it's deemed an unsuccessful play because it was unable to pick up the first down yardage. If a 2nd and 10 play picks up six yards, it is considered a successful play. If on 3rd and 1, the offense gets one yard and picks up the first down, the play is deemed successful.

In 2018 under Scott Linehan, the Dallas Cowboys deployed 11-personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) 66% of the time, per Sharp Football Stats. That personnel rate was right at the league average of 65%. The Cowboys success rate in 2018 when running 11-personnel was just under the league average at 45%. It was arguably the Dallas Cowboys most effective personnel grouping when they threw the ball as Dak Prescott had a passer rating of 100.6, but he only averaged 7.2 yards per attempt last season in this formation. They were successful on only 45% of their pass attempts, which put them in the bottom half of the league when throwing out of 11-personnel. Though they averaged 5.2 yards per carry, when the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball out of 11-personnel, they ranked 18th in the NFL in success rate at 49%.

In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys are playing out 11-personnel 77% of the time. That's more than a 10% bump in 11-personnel through the first two games of the season. The Dallas Cowboys have a success rate in 11-personnel of 60%, which is second in the NFL only to the New England Patriots. Currently, the league average success rate out of 11-personnel is only 47%.

When Dak Prescott throws the ball out of 11-personnel, he has a passer rating of 145 (league average is 97), 11.4 yards per attempt (league average is 7.4) and 8.3 air yards per attempt (league average is 7.4). The Dallas Cowboys when passing out of 11-personnel have a success rate of 65%. That's a huge bump from their success rate in 2018 of 45% and much higher than the league average in 2019 of 46%. No team in the NFL has a higher success rate when throwing out of this formation than the Dallas Cowboys.

Let me say that again. No team in the NFL has a higher success rate when throwing out of 11-personnel than Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. Not the Kansas City Chiefs, not the Patriots, not the Los Angeles Rams. Nobody.

When the Dallas Cowboys run the ball out of 11-personnel, they gain the necessary yardage on the down at a rate of 56%. In running success rate, the Dallas Cowboys rank 11th in the NFL, just behind the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Though the offense has a higher success rate when running 12-personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, and 2 wide receivers), they only use this formation 15% of the time. Dak Prescott's a perfect 8 for 8 when throwing out of 12-personnel with a perfect passer rating. While they've been good throwing out of this formation (100% success rate), it hasn't been nearly as successful for the running game (36%). Much of that is due to the tight formation that comes with running out of a two-tight end set and the extra defender it brings into the box.

It's obvious that the Dallas Cowboys are having a ton of success when deploying 11-personnel, but why? What can we take away from this?

Kellen Moore Effect

Kellen Moore's playcalling has been a breath of fresh air in 2019. Though we're only two games into the season, clearly he knows what he's doing. Sure, the Dallas Cowboys haven't faced the toughest NFL defenses yet in 2019, but they've put 35 and 31 points on the board against division rivals in double-digit victories to start the season. That's not an easy thing to accomplish.

His use of pre-snap motion and varying route concepts has helped the Dallas Cowboys find openings in the defense for their pass catchers. Moore has employed rub routes and picks into the offense as well as more RPO (run-pass options) and read-options that it seemed Scott Linehan was willing to do.

Dak Prescott's Progression

It's really easy to look at what Dak Prescott and the offense have done in 2019 and lay all of the credit at the feet of Kellen Moore the offensive coordinator, but that would short the most important player on the offense; Dak Prescott.


The mental and physical development that Dak Prescott has undertaken over the last nine months has really shown in these first two games. He's shown excellent command of the offense and has been a tactician before the snap. Several times his checks have led to seemingly simple completions because of what he's been able to accomplish before the snap. Because of that, he's been a much more decisive player after the snap, getting the ball out quickly as soon as he makes his reads.

Another thing that's stood out a lot is the way he's used his eyes and body to manipulate the defense or to keep the defense from sitting on throws. Before pretty much every throw from Dak this season, he's checked the coverage on his primary option, looked away, and then came back to the target and delivered the ball on time.

Prescott's always been a sharp player, but he's stepped up his understanding and application of the mental side of the game.

On the physical side, Prescott's showing a lot of development there as well. He's throwing from a better base and maintaining better balance in the pocket and on the move. It appears that he's throwing with more power, which comes from having better lower body mechanics.

Though it's only two games, it's apparent that Prescott's taken a huge step forward and in ways that will translate throughout the rest of the season and his career.

Spreading the Ball Around

Dak Prescott's always been a player that loved to spread the ball around and it has continued in 2019. Through two games, Prescott's completed passes to nine different players. In week one against the New York Giants, he completed passes to seven players and in week two against the Washington Redskins, he completed passes to eight different players. Five different players have a touchdown reception through two weeks.

In this offense, everyone is going to get an opportunity and Dak Prescott is going to flourish with the plethora of weapons.

One thing that has helped has been the chemistry that has developed between Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup, Amari Cooper, and Randall Cobb. Jason Witten returning gave Dak another reliable weapon in the passing game.

Opposing teams can't focus their attention on one player throughout a game, because the Dallas Cowboys have too many weapons that can hurt you in the passing game. Even with Michael Gallup out for the next 2-4 weeks, the Dallas Cowboys will look to get Devin Smith, who had a really nice day last Sunday, involved in the passing game in his absence.

Use of Play Action

In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys used play-action on only 24.9 percent of his dropbacks In 2019, the Cowboys are using play-action on 43.1% of his dropbacks. The threat of handing off to any running back, but especially to Ezekiel Elliott, is a powerful weapon in a play-callers' arsenal and Scott Linehan inexplicably didn't use it near as much as he should have.

Under Linehan in 2018, Dak Prescott ranked only 10th in play-action attempts among players with at least 110 play-action attempts per Pro Football Focus. Through two games in 2019, Dak Prescott ranks second in pecent of dropbacks that are play-action and fifth in total play-action dropbacks.

Kellen Moore understands what a weapon play-action is for an offense because it forces defenses to account for their responsibilities in the running game. When defenses don't have to be concerned with the threat of a handoff, then they can key in on their passing game responsibilities, making it more difficult for a quarterback to do his job. When a linebacker or safety has to account for the running game on a given play, it causes hesitation in that player's reaction to the play. Along the defensive line, when they have to account for the running game, they cannot fully commit to their rush right away.

Dak Prescott's always been a really good play-action quarterback, so it's nice to see Kellen Moore utilizing that ability even more than has been in the past. You could argue that the Cowboys could employ some kind of play fake on every play and they'd be able to find success with it.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Dallas Cowboys are off to a tremendous start on the offensive side of the football and that's a trend that should continue throughout the 2019 season. Sure, the Cowboys will face much tougher defenses in the second half of the year, but by that point, this will be a team that is firing on all cylinders as long as they're able to maintain a reasonable level of health.

The combination of Dak Prescott's ability and Kellen Moore's offensive philosophy has been a match made in efficiency heaven. With these two working at such a high level, the Dallas Cowboys have an offense that can lead them to the football Promised Land and that elusive sixth Lombardi Trophy.


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Cowboys Safety Depth Should be Able to Hold Serve With Xavier Woods Injury

Matthew Lenix

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Cowboys Safety Depth Should be Able to Hold Serve With Xavier Woods Injury

The Dallas Cowboys picked up their second consecutive win of the 2019 season this past Sunday against the Washington Redskins. However, it came with a few bumps and bruises once all the smoke cleared. Wide Receiver Michael Gallup is out 2-4 weeks after suffering a torn meniscus, Antwaun Woods is day-to-day with an MCL sprain, and Tyrone Crawford has a hip issue. The biggest blow came when Safety Xavier Woods went down with a high ankle sprain which was supposed to keep him out 4-6 weeks, but according to DallasCowboys.com's Bryan Broaddus, he might only miss one game. Nonetheless, definitely not the news you want to hear after a big division win on the road, but the Cowboys should have enough depth at safety to survive until the return of Woods.

Fortunately, the Cowboys have a bit of position flex when it comes to safety. Jeff Heath, who's the starter at strong safety played some free safety last year during the absence of Woods in the first two games. He was decent with 7 tackles and a pass defended during that small stretch. Heath is much maligned by Cowboys fans but it is encouraging to know he can switch sides if need be.

This allowed Safety Kavon Frazier to make his only two NFL starts at the strong safety position. In those two games, he had 8 tackles, a sack and a pass defended. Frazier is a very valuable player on special teams and has provided nice depth at safety for the Cowboys for several years now.


Rookie Safety Donovan Wilson was a breakout star during the preseason with 3 interceptions in 3 consecutive games. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle injury just before the start of the season and has been inactive for the first two games. He's been a full practice participant lately and will be available on Sunday. Wilson is looked at as the possible starter of the future at strong safety.

Lastly, there's Safety Darian Thompson, a former third-round pick out of Boise State in 2016. In 2017, he started all 16 games for the New York Giants and was very productive with 75 tackles, 6 passes defended and an interception. In September of 2018, he was waived by the Giants and was signed to the Arizona Cardinals practice squad a month later. His time in Arizona would be short-lived, though, when he was signed to the Cowboys practice squad a week later. He was released in November but resigned three days later and appeared in 10 games last season as a special teams contributor. Thompson is slated to start opposite Jeff Heath this Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

The names may not jump out at you but the Cowboys have some pretty solid depth at safety. Will it be enough to hold down the fort until Xavier Woods returns? I believe so but we'll see once the ball kicks off in Arlington on Sunday.

 


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