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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.