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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

4th-and-1 Conversions Against JAC Were Hollow Victories for Garrett

John Williams

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Sean's Scout: Cowboys Punt Away Chance at Division Lead with Heartbreak in Houston

The Dallas Cowboys' Head Coach Jason Garrett was under fire all week-long after his passive decision to NOT go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Houston Texans 42 yard line in overtime last week. Instead of taking a shot with a really good offensive line and one of the best running backs in the NFL, Garrett opted to punt the ball to a Texans offense that the Cowboys defense struggled to stop -- until it got inside the five yard line that is.

Well, in typical Jason Garrett fashion, in a game in which they were leading from start to finish en route to a 40-7 victory -- that was never really that close -- the Dallas Cowboys' head coach kept the offense on the field on two 4th and 1 occasions. Converting both of them.

The head coach and the rest of the Dallas Cowboys organization may feel vindicated in pulling the trigger in situations that the Dallas Cowboys have been almost automatic in converting since the start of 2016. The reality is there was nothing at risk in the point of the game in which Garrett opted to try to convert the fourth down.

Though they converted on both 4th-and-1 attempts, they were nothing more than hollow victories for the much maligned head coach.

Their first 4th and 1 attempt was late in the first half of the game with the Dallas Cowboys already leading 17-0. They were driving with under two minutes to play in the half at the Jacksonville Jaguars 37 yard line. The Jaguars had only crossed midfield once and hadn't sniffed any scoring opportunities. There was little risked at that point in the game. If you miss on the conversion, the Jaguars would have to pick up at least 26 yards to get into field goal range. At that point in the game the Jacksonville had only picked up two first downs. The Jaguars had only averaged 13 yards per drive on their four first half drives to that point and three of those drives went three and out.

You can make a case that if the Dallas Cowboys missed on this opportunity and the Jaguars took the ensuing possession and scored, it could have had an impact on the outcome of the game. But with the way that the defense completely dominated the Jaguars in the first half, there was little chance of them driving the length of the field to score a touchdown with under a minute to play.

The next time the Dallas Cowboys went for it on 4th and 1 was with 10:22 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Cowboys up 37-7. The game at this point was already decided.

Unlike the week before.

Tony Romo said it best during the broadcast. He talked about the leeway Garrett would have gotten from Jerry Jones had the Dallas Cowboys gone for it on 4th-and-1 against the Texans and missed because Jones is a risk taker (paraphrasing). Now, I know Garrett has been known to take a chance or two at times, think of the Chris Jones fake punts, but there are situations in football that aren't that big of a risk. When you're in opponent territory and have the run game that the Cowboys have, picking up 4th-and-1 is about as sure a thing as you'll find in the NFL. Since 2016, the Dallas Cowboys had gone 18 for 19 on 4th-and-1 situations. Even if they don't make it, the opponent still has to pick up a 2-3 first downs to have a shot at winning the game.

Don't be fooled by what Garrett did on Sunday. He wasn't being aggressive. He wasn't taking the fight to an opponent who was still in the game. He was kicking a team while it was down. The Jaguars had zero answers for the Cowboys on either side of the football. The Cowboys wouldn't have lost the football game if they missed on either of those two opportunities.

If anything, Garrett was just being petty about all the criticism he took this week for declining his offense the chance to keep the ball week five. I've always been a Garrett believer because of the way he gets his teams mentally prepared to play. They rarely have bad games and typically when their backs are against the wall, they respond. On 4th and 1 against the Texans a week ago, their backs were against the wall as a team and he didn't give them the opportunity to respond. Had Garrett had faith in his defense, he would have gone for it because he would have believed in their ability to prevent the Texans from getting into field goal range. He showed a lack of faith in both sides of the ball by not giving the offense a chance to convert and by trying to help the defense with better field position.

I don't believe for a second that Jason Garrett changed his philosophy on those types of calls and I fully expect us to be rather frustrated by another conservative call in the future. Like I said before, these two 4th-and-1 conversions meant nothing in how the game was going to play out. Is it possible that Jerry Jones got in Garrett's ear about taking those kinds of chances to win the game? Absolutely. If we see a similar situation come in the future and Garrett goes for it, perhaps there was a change, but change is a difficult thing. Most humans do not like change and most people don't change.

I hope I'm wrong and this marked a change in the approach of Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff. With their offensive line and the running ability of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, I don't care if they only convert half of those opportunities, those two are too good with the ball in their hands to not go for it.

Hopefully Jason Garrett realizes that running those two are his best avenue to winning football games and is aggressive on future 4th-and-1 situations. Since I like my life, I'm not going to hold my breath.



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Dallas Cowboys

Report: Jason Garrett “Not Going Anywhere” with Possible Extension Coming Soon

Sean Martin

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Report: Jason Garrett "Not Going Anywhere" with Possible Extension Coming Soon 1

With his 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Jason Garrett's Cowboys did more than enough to silence talks of possible firings on the coaching staff for at least a week. According to a report from Dallas Cowboys Feature Writer Jeff Sullivan, it's possible Garrett has earned much more than this, with an extension for the eighth year head coach looming.

Jeff Sullivan on Twitter

@Markbristow22 Sounds like another extension could be signed soon he's not going anywhere.

The Cowboys have alternated wins and losses through the first six weeks of the season. Thanks to the rest of the NFC East getting off to an equally slow start, the 3-3 Cowboys are still playing for first place this week in Washington.

When considering these marginal victories in the grand scheme of what Garrett has achieved since taking over fully in 2011, the timing to extend him early in 2018 feels peculiar. The Cowboys went 8-8 in Garrett's first three years as he turned the roster over, and in similar fashion his young team has done little to prove they're not on track for a .500 record this year.

Sullivan does go on to explain Garrett's impact at The Star throughout the week, which is often forgotten about once he's in the public eye during game day. The Cowboys comfort with Garrett leading the way still has to be considered alongside the deficiencies of his staff to put players in the best position to win.

Jeff Sullivan on Twitter

@Markbristow22 Six days a week top-3 coach in the league. Just struggles a bit on game days

As their last franchise quarterback said on his way out the door, "football is a meritocracy," where, "nothing is given".

It is widely accepted that the Cowboys coaching staff will be mainly responsible for at least one loss a season. Be it Scott Linehan or Garrett, the Cowboys chance at victory is snatched away from them by coaching annually.

Even with a win at the Redskins this week, it's hard to imagine not bringing up early season defeats in Carolina, Seattle, and Houston, as games the Cowboys missed out on.

The duality of Garrett punting away a chance to win at the Texans last week before leading his team to their largest win since 2014 is simply who he is. Even before the Cowboys took the field for a seemingly tough match up against the Jaguars, Jerry Jones delivered a vote of confidence in Garrett - as he's done before in an offense that finally capitalized on their talent, making 40 points come easy on the league's top defense.

Report: Jason Garrett "Not Going Anywhere" with Possible Extension Coming Soon

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, HC Jason Garrett

Garrett's current contract runs through 2019. If you believe he's struck gold in Quarterback Dak Prescott, a young passer he hitched his wagon to early in order to survive the post-Romo era, the Cowboys would have a decision to make on both Garrett and Prescott at the same time.

Of course, that is if they're willing to let Prescott play out the final year of his rookie deal before signing an extension, and if an extension of his own isn't coming Garrett's way eminently.

This story has not gained traction with the rest of the local or national media, and that's likely because Garrett still has time in Dallas. Not only has he been afforded an amount of time that some would call unearned, but the time ahead of him makes the idea of a new extension obscene.

Regardless of when Garrett sits down to discuss his future with the Jones', it's become clearer by the day that he'll have their full support behind closed doors. Such is the stability Garrett provides the Cowboys, as well as the mediocrity to never advance past the Divisional Round of the playoffs.

The Cowboys have done nothing so far in 2018 to prove they can be the team that snaps this streak for Garrett, and must first prove that their 40-7 win over the Jaguars was no anomaly. Earning their first win on the road and improving to 2-0 in the NFC East is another way for the Cowboys to take strides towards winning the division.

The Redskins would drop to 0-1 with the loss, and the Eagles have managed just one divisional win against the Giants thus far.

Let's not forget that this is where the team expects to be every year. Even though the 4-3 Cowboys would face far fewer questions about the future for their coaches and tenured players, buying in to Garrett even more after each win, the week-to-week nature of the NFL should have Dallas weary of locking in Jason for a single game past next season.

Tell us what you think about "Report: Jason Garrett “Not Going Anywhere” with Possible Extension Coming Soon" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

Cowboys Defense Stands Out in Blowout Win over Jaguars

John Williams

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Cowboys Defense Continues to Standout in Blowout Win over Jaguars

The Dallas Cowboys defense has found different ways to get the job done at different times during the 2018 season. They're a big reason the team is 3-3 and sits only a half game back of the first place Washington Redskins.

Even last week, I was critical of the defense for giving up a ton of yards and felt like they were very fortunate to only lose by three in overtime to the Houston Texans. They were amazing when the Texans got inside the five yard line forcing a turnover on downs on four first and goal attempts inside the five last week.

After giving up 462 total yards to Deshaun Watson and the Texans in week five, the Dallas Cowboys' defense only allowed 204 to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. They held Jacksonville to 4 of 11 on third downs. The Cowboys forced four three and outs during the game and only allowed three drives to cross midfield.

The Cowboys' defense was led by Leighton Vander Esch with 11 total tackles (7 solo) and Jaylon Smith with nine total tackles (6 solo) and a forced fumble. Jourdan Lewis made an excellent hustle play along the sideline late in the third quarter to recover that Smith fumble.

Byron Jones was excellent in coverage yet again on Sunday and if this were hockey, would get a primary assist for his pass deflection that led to the Jeff Heath interception in the third quarter. The Cowboys were able to turn both turnovers into field goals.

The Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive line blocked the Dallas Cowboys front seven pretty well and Quarterback Blake Bortles was really good at avoiding pressure. Bortles was only sacked three times during the game. Randy Gregory and Maliek Collins each had a sack, while Antwaun Woods and Tyrone Crawford combined for the other sack.

Though he didn't register a tackle or a sack on the stat sheet, it was awesome to see Defensive Lineman David Irving on the field for the first time since the middle of the season last year. He had an impact early in the game. Irving had a pressure on Blake Bortles and forced a hold on a punt in the first half of the game. His presence was definitely felt.

As a defense they held Jacksonville Jaguars Quarterback Blake Bortles to 149 yards passing and a 70.8 passer rating. Even as the Jaguars were down 20 points at halftime, they never could get much offense going in the second half. The Cowboys kept Bortles and the Jaguars passing game in check for most of the night, only allowing a touchdown when Anthony Brown fell down when he released his receiver to try to get to the intended target, Dede Westbrook. Westbrook went relatively untouched into the end zone for the Jaguars score of the day. That play aside, the Cowboys did a really good job limiting big plays against a receiving corp with a lot of speed.

Even with Bortles scrambling, the Cowboys were able to hold the Jaguars as a team to 3.6 yards per carry on the day. The Jaguars' T.J. Yeldon was able to come up with some decent runs, but the defense kept those positive gains from having much of an impact on the game.

The Dallas Cowboys' defense isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a unit that has played really good football for much of the 2018 season. On Sunday, the Cowboys did an excellent job getting off the field on third downs and forcing turnovers and other errors, which were created by the Cowboys pressure.

Everything seems to be coming together for Dallas with David Irving and Maliek Collins getting back into the lineup. If Sean Lee and Chidobe Awuzie are able to go for the Cowboys next week, this defense is going to make life extremely difficult for Alex Smith and the Washington Redskins next Sunday.

After allowing a ton of yards last week, the Cowboys defense rebounded with a dominant performance against a Jaguars team that played for the AFC Championship last season. For the Cowboys to get to the playoffs in 2018, they're going to have to play at a high level like they did on Sunday.

I, for one, don't doubt that they can.



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