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Cowboys Salary Cap: Jason Witten is Beloved, but Burdensome

Leading up to the March 9th start of NFL , we will be looking at all players under contract for 2017 and how much of the 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 . 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 painfully aware of how difficult it gets to handle aging stars and their contracts. and 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 . 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 have contributed to his declining role. Going from Tony Romo to immediately hurt Witten's value, his chemistry with Tony being such a huge asset. Also, 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

2017 Cap Hit: $3 million

Dallas re-signed Hanna last year as a and paid him well to stick around. Hailed as the best blocking 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 . Exceptionally athletic for his size, Hanna could also finally see some looks in the as Witten's primary backup.

Geoff Swaim
TE

Geoff Swaim

2017 Cap Hit: $629k

It was Swaim, rather than Gavin Escobar, who took advantage of James Hanna's 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 and the department are doing.

Rico Gathers
TE (Matthew Emmons- Sports)

Rico Gathers

2017 Cap Hit: $465k

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

Free Agents

Gavin Escobar – The former second-round pick had dropped to fourth on the last . 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 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 . 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 so compelling.

Jess Haynie
Jess Haynie
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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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.

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