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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.

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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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8 Comments
  • XaqFields

    OH NO YOU DIDN’T!

    Just kidding.

    No matter how big a fan you are, we live and operate in the salary cap world. With that said, every player has to be scrutinized based on how much of the team’s salary cap his contract consumes. This is why Romo can’t play for the Cowboys next year. This is why DeMarcus Ware had to leave the Cowboys a few years ago. This is why Terence Newman had to go. It’s why Doug Free renegotiated to a smaller contract. It’s why Brandon Carr did the same.

    Sometimes the best way to handle it is with a small extension. Add a couple years to the deal for substantially lower salaries. He’s basically at 1 year, $12 million right now. Maybe extend that to 3 years, $18 million. Keep the guarantees down to maybe $5 million and then he can retire after 2017 if he wants with no penalty to the Cowboys or he can play another year or two with no guarantees at a more modest salary.

    He ultimately gets paid the same or more, (because his salary for 2016 — the money he’s actually being paid in cash— is $7.4 million of that $12.2 million cap hit) but it allows the Cowboys to kick some of that cap hit out of 2017. Should work for both sides.

    • Jess Haynie

      Good solution. If I had to guess, I think something along these lines will get done before September.

  • Joe Conti

    Ad a year on his deal and call it a day

  • TD4SPORTS

    Right on point, Whitten is and has been the Ultimate Cowboy but time catches up with everyone and he is no different. The TE position has evolved since the days of old, the TE creates matchup nightmares for DCS when they can get up thei middle on a LB. Jason can’t do that anymore and the ball has to be perfect for him to catch it, so it is time to redo his contract and find the next generation TE to take over. JJ always wait too late with some and give up too early on others, Jason needs to groom his successor before he retired…COWBOYS4LIFE !!!

    • Jess Haynie

      It seems like the best TE prospects coming out of college are fairly pro-ready in their first year. If Dallas is committed to using a high pick next year on a TE, assuming Witten retires, they can probably feel good about getting a talented player who can take over immediately without being groomed.

  • Derek Johnson

    I just think it’s time Cowboys got younger at tight end. Everyone loves Jason…but it’s time to let someone faster and more athletic play the position.

    • Jess Haynie

      It will be interesting to see if they do that now or wait one more season. With Hanna, Swaim, and Gathers already on the depth chart, they may just decide to see what they already have and then draft a TE high next year if needed.

      • Derek Johnson

        The way they talked about Gathers. Sounds like he needs to be that guy. I read that he was constantly beating the first team in practice. Of course Romo was his QB. Running the scout team.

Player News

Sean’s Scout: RB Rod Smith Proving Valuable Offensive Threat

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: RB Rod Smith Proving Valuable Offensive Threat

The Cowboys have just one more game to get through without their star running back Ezekiel Elliott, but Alfred Morris and Rod Smith deserve a ton of credit for the way they’ve been able to fill in out of the backfield for Zeke Elliott. Throughout the time Elliott has missed though, the Cowboys have lacked the explosive plays on offense that he can provide – until Rod Smith was given an opportunity last week at the Giants.

Smith complimented Morris exceptionally well, running with quickness and power to prove his case for more of a role on offense behind Elliott moving forward. It was the Ohio State product’s consecutive touchdowns of 81 yards through the air and 15 yards on the ground that sealed the game for the Cowboys in week 14.

Here is a closer look at Rod Smith’s performance from last week in this latest Sean’s Scout.

Smith3 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

The Cowboys offensive line was dominant as always against a tough New York defensive front, and this first play is a great look at their execution in space and on the move. Rod Smith’s decisiveness when hitting the hole with speed and balance was the first thing I noticed on the game tape.

The best thing Smith does on this play comes at the second level, where running backs can truly make a difference in Dallas. As RG Zack Martin rides his man out of the play entirely, he gets in front of Smith who is seeing the play develop straight ahead. With his long strides, Smith is able to smoothly get through traffic and continue accelerating up field through arm tackles for a big gain.

Smith2 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

These same traits are seen with Rod Smith as a pass catcher – something he does effortlessly to also help fill the void left by Elliott. Watch how quickly Smith commits to his angle up the field after catching this dump pass from Dak Prescott, attacking a defender that has the angle on him after the catch.

Rod subtly leans to the right just enough to make the defender hesitate long enough to allow his burst to evade him and gain extra yards falling forward.

Smith4 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

Smith essentially does the same thing without the ball in his hands here, on his 81 yard catch and run for a touchdown. Setting up the safety out of the slot to be beat across his face, Smith separates from him at the stem and then does a great job getting depth on his route into the vacated middle of the field. With blockers to help him reach the end zone, Smith turns this busted coverage by the Giants into the game’s biggest play.

Smith1 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

This last play I chose to show is probably the least well-blocked attempt for Smith out of the ones in this Sean’s Scout, but there is still a lot to like about what Rod does here with the ball in his hands.

The Giants might be a two-win football team, but they still have marquee players up front, particularly DE Olivier Vernon. Smith does well here to keep his feet moving as he cuts this play to the backside. Vernon does well to limit the potential gain on this play by staying away from the block of Jason Witten, as Smith is taken down by Darian Thompson.

The numbers the Giants had to commit to stopping the run was still a huge reason why Prescott had a career day throwing the football, and Rod Smith’s readiness to step in at RB was a deciding factor in getting Dallas to 7-6.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Proving to be one of the Dallas Cowboys most valuable players, considering his cost (under contract through 2018), and ability to contribute on special teams and offense, Rod Smith is the perfect RB3 for this team.

Smith is not elite in any one area, and is not a prototypical RB from a physical standpoint, but his contributions as a runner, pass catcher, and blocker could remain critical to the Cowboys’ hopes of reaching the playoffs behind this offense – even when Ezekiel Elliott is back in the fold.

Tell us what you think about “Sean’s Scout: RB Rod Smith Proving Valuable Offensive Threat” in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

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Dallas Cowboys

Rod Smith Vs Alfred Morris: Who’s The Cowboys Real RB1?

Brian Martin

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Rod Smith Vs Alfred Morris: Who's Cowboys' Real RB1?

The Dallas Cowboys are less than a week away from welcoming back their talented Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott, but until then they still have a game to play against the Oakland Raiders. That means we will have one more week of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith handling the workload, but which RB is sitting at the top of the Cowboys depth chart?

Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of decision that can end up winning or losing a game. Both Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have had their moments during Ezekiel Elliott’s absence, but neither one of them have really distanced themselves from the other. So, should Rod Smith or Alfred Morris receive the majority of the workload against the Raiders Sunday?

A Case for Rod Smith

RB Rod Smith and QB Dak PrescottRod Smith might just have had is coming out party last week against the New York Giants. Against their divisional rival, in what was a must win game for the Cowboys, Smith rushed for 47 yards on six carries and added another 113 yards through the air on five catches. He also found himself in the end zone twice, once on a rushing touchdown and the other on a receiving touchdown.

You may or may not agree, but I believe that “Lightning” Rod Smith was largely responsible for igniting the Cowboys offense and helping them pull away from the Giants last Sunday. He accounted for over 160 total yards and two touchdowns by himself and didn’t receive the majority of his playing time until later in the game.

Rod Smith certainly has traits that make him a more desirable RB over Alfred Morris. First off, he is a more complete back. He is better in pass protection and at catching the ball out of the backfield. But, he is also starting to show up in the running game and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry this season. His size (6’3″, 235) also makes him a better short yardage back, although I wish he would deliver more of a blow at the end of his runs.

A Case for Alfred Morris

RB Alfred MorrisAlthough there’s nothing particularly special that stands out about Alfred Morris, he has proven time and time again he is more than capable of carrying the workload. He has received the majority of the workload during Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and has performed pretty well. In fact, he is averaging 5 yards a carry this season, which is better than any other RB on the Cowboys roster, including Elliott.

Alfred Morris has looked pretty good this season and is playing with more of a spring in his step than I have seen from him in probably his entire career. Last Sunday against the Giants he received the the majority of the workload and finished the game with 19 carries for 62 yards. Not particularly spectacular, but the week prior he did rush for 127 yards on 27 carries in the victory over the Washington Redskins.

Like I mentioned earlier, Morris is a tried-and-true RB in the NFL and is at his best when he can continue to pound the rock and wear down opposing defenses. That is what he did against the Redskins, but he has his limitations as well. Despite his years in the league, he still struggles in pass protection and is limited in what he can do in the passing game. But, he does seem to have the trust of the Cowboys coaching staff.

✭✭✭✭✭

Personally, I would like to see more of Rod Smith this coming Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. I really like what I’ve seen from him in both the running game and in the passing game. I just think he is a more dangerous and versatile weapon then Alfred Morris. His presence on the field really opens up what the Cowboys can do offensively.

I don’t mean any disrespect to Alfred Morris at all. I just think that Rod Smith has proven he is a more dangerous offensive weapon of the two. I don’t know if the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff will agree or not, but I truly believe Rod Smith could once again be the X factor against the Oakland Raiders.

Of course, both Rod Smith and Alfred Morris will have to take the back seat once Ezekiel Elliott returns. So, this discussion really only has any credibility for this week in yet another must win situation against the Oakland Raiders.

Who do you like better… Rod Smith or Alfred Morris?

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Player News

La’el Collins’ Toughness And Availability Earning High Praise

Brian Martin

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La'el Collins' Toughness And Availability Earning High Praise 1

The decision by the Dallas Cowboys to move La’el Collins from left guard to right tackle was met by some skepticism by quite a few members of Cowboys Nation during the off-season. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was one of those skeptical of the move, but I’m not afraid to admit he has exceeded my expectations.

In all honesty, I always believed that La’el Collins’ best position in the NFL is on the interior of the offense of line as a guard. I thought he could use his strength and athleticism to his advantage when working in a phone booth against slower and less athletic defensive tackles. That’s not to say I didn’t think he would make a good right tackle, I just thought he had Pro Bowl potential as a guard.

Strangely enough, Collins has probably put together a Pro Bowl caliber season in his first season starting at the right tackle position for the Cowboys. He has become an upgrade over the previous starter Doug Free, and is really starting to earn high praise from the brass. Stephen Jones in particular has been impressed with Collins, especially considering how he has played after missing two full weeks of practice.

Mark Lane on Twitter

DallasCowboys COO Stephen Jones told @1053thefan La’el Collins has answered the bell after his contract extension.

I personally agree with everything Stephen Jones said about La’el Collins. I’ve really enjoyed watching his progression this season, but I have been really impressed how he played the last two weeks after missing so much practice.

You might not of known, but Collins has missed two full weeks of practice due to a herniated disc in his back. This is put his availability to play against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants in jeopardy, but somehow he has toughened up and played considerably well.

This unfortunately will be something he has to continue to battle through the rest of the season, but I’m not going to bet against him playing. He absolutely makes this offensive line better and I would hate to see Chaz Green or Byron Bell back on the field after the way they played as feel-ins.

La’el Collins has without a doubt earned my respect and I think it’s about time we all recognize the player he is turning into. I know the Dallas Cowboys appreciate all that he does and believe that his recent contract extension is money well spent.

What do you think about La’el Collins?

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