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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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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.

Game Notes

Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?

The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.

We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.

Dallas Cowboys

  • TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
  • DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
  • WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
  • OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
  • DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable

Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.

Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving.  Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.

Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.

Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.

While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.

Indianapolis Colts

  • G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
  • LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
  • S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
  • WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
  • TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
  • S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable

The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.

Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.

Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.

Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.



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Game Notes

Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts

Sean Martin

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Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts

The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.

The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.

David Moore on Twitter

Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.

Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.

While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.

Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.

The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.

Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.

The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.

Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.

Tell us what you think about "Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts" 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

Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts

John Williams

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#DALvsPHI: Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott Key to Clipping the Eagles Wings?

Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.

My how things have changed.

Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.

As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.

Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?

By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.

All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.

On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.

Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.

The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.

Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?

The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.

According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.

Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.

In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.

The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.

Big Games from Explosive Duo?

The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.

Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.

Patrick Conn on Twitter

Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances

Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.

Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.

They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.

Rookie Linebackers Dominating

We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.

Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.

Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.

Prediction

Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.

Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.

This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...

Cowboys 24 - Colts 20

Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section. 



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