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: Running Backs
The Cowboys' running backs get as much attention as any group in the NFL. With three first-round picks and increasingly big contracts invested in their offensive line, Dallas made a commitment to running the ball that few NFL teams have matched. Once they spent a fourth-overall pick on Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys' run game became its clear offensive focal point.
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' running backs are scheduled to cost against our 2017 salary cap.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB
While rookie contracts are often huge money-savers for NFL teams, Ezekiel Elliott's doesn't offer quite the same benefit. Between the generally lower cap figures for running backs and being the fourth overall pick last season, Elliott's cap hit is still in the top 10 for the position. He is only about $2.5 million below veterans like LeSean McCoy and Jonathan Stewart, who are in the top three.
Not that anyone's complaining, though. As the league's leading rusher and the most talented runner to come into the NFL since Adrian Peterson, Elliott is still a bargain at his current cost. He will continue to be the Cowboys' primary weapon on offense while making far less than some of his teammates.
The first time Dallas even has to think about Zeke's contract is 2019, the fourth and final year. That is the first time that Elliott is eligible to get an extension. Because Zeke was a first-round pick, the Cowboys can also consider using their fifth-year option; basically a cheaper version of securing him for one more season than using the franchise tag.
There is a lot of football between now and then, though. For the present, Zeke is one of the best bargains in the NFL. Enjoy it!
After an encouraging preseason and solid play from Weeks 1-5, Morris' performance trailed off as the season went along. He eventually lost his spot to Darren McFadden and finished the year with just a 3.5 average on his carries.
Alfred's contract expires after 2017. Dallas can save about $1.6 million by releasing him while eating $500k in dead money. Morris' potential to be a cap casualty is explained in detail towards the end of this article.
Keith Smith (FB)
A few weeks ago I wrote about Smith's value as the Cowboys' fullback and special teams player. Suffice to say, he's a solid contributor to the offense and team as a whole. I don't expect him to be going anywhere. The linked article goes into much further detail about what Keith Smith offers.
Smith was active in seven games last year but only touched the ball once. He lost the competition for the fullback job to Keith Smith and wound up being released in Week 9, though he did finish the year on the Cowboys' practice squad.
It doesn't hurt that Rod Smith's brother, Jaylon, is a Cowboy and projects to be a very important one in the near future. Dallas will likely keep Rod through training camp as a body, though we will have to wait and see if he gets more work at RB or FB.
Darren McFadden - While he looked slightly more effective than Alfred Morris with his limited carries, McFadden still had just a 3.6 average in 2016. Turning 30 this August, it may simply be too little, too late for the veteran. However, if Dallas still likes him more than Morris, we might see McFadden get the veteran minimum to stay while Alfred gets released.
Lance Dunbar - While he stayed healthy, a rarity for his career, Dunbar's role on offense and special team was even less than prior seasons. Now a 27-year-old running back who relies on speed, there doesn't seem to be a spot for him in Dallas going forward.
2017 Salary Cap Impact
Total Running Backs Cap Hit = $8.87 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 5.24%
I don't see these numbers changing much after the offseason. If anything, they could go down if Dallas cuts Alfred Morris.
This should remain a cap-friendly position for the next few seasons. Ezekiel Elliott's rookie deal should continue to be a bargain through 2019. Given his workhorse role, Dallas can continue to find low-priced veterans or even cheaper, younger options to stock behind Zeke on the depth chart.
There will come a time when the Cowboys have to decide if Elliott is worth paying franchise player money too. What happens this year with Le'Veon Bell's free agency in Pittsburgh and David Johnson in 2019 will got a long way to setting the market price. For now, Dallas thankfully can just enjoy the savings with Zeke's rookie contract.
Potential Cap Casualties
Alfred Morris should definitely be worried. That $1.6 million in savings is not a small amount, especially with Dallas needing to fill several holes and find upgrades on defense. He wasn't effective enough to guarantee his spot.
The issue, as it almost always is with releasing players, is that you have to then replace them. Morris' dead money will still count $500k against the cap and Dallas would then have to pay someone to take his spot. Unless they go with someone making near the minimum, that $1.6 million in cap savings will get eaten up fast.
What will really matter with Alfred's future is if Dallas finds someone they simply see as an upgrade. Even if the money is a wash, a more effective backup RB is still worth finding.
Cowboys Wishlist: Connor Williams Turns It Around
The Dallas Cowboys are on the road again as they travel to Indianapolis to face a hot 7-6 Colts team that's trying to sneak into the AFC Playoffs. It will be a tough challenge for a team that's struggled when playing out of AT&T Stadium but the Cowboys have changed a lot since they were a 3-5 unit. This time, they're one of the hottest teams in the NFL and are one win away from clinching the NFC East.
We surely are in for a great game. Without further ado, I hope you enjoy this week's edition of "Cowboys Wishlist."
Wish #1: Leighton Vander Esch Outplays Darius Leonard
As impressive as Leighton Vander Esch has been for the Dallas Cowboys, he's not alone in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. On today's game, he'll meet his match in Colts LB Darius Leonard. A second rounder himself, Leonard leads the league in tackles with 135. He also is responsible for 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and one interception.
Vander Esch, otherwise known as "Wolf Hunter" doesn't have such incredible stats, but playing time is a big reason why. His play has been pretty impressive, though. Ranked as the top rookie linebacker by PFF, hell be out there to prove who's the better player. I really wish he outplays Leonard en rout to the DROY award.
Wish #2: No Turnovers From Dak
455 yards, three touchdowns and another game-winning drive were more than impressive from Dak Prescott. I really have faith in him as the Cowboys' QB. But we can't ignore the three turnovers he was responsible for in such a close game versus the Philadelphia Eagles.
This game will be different. The Colts are a legit threat in the NFL right now and the Cowboys won't be the home team. Without Martin on the field, Prescott is likely to be pressured. If that's the case, he needs to watch out and avoid fumbles in the pocket.
It's really important the team takes care of the ball if they want the win versus Andrew Luck and company. I specifically wish Dak Prescott has a good game and does something he's done fairly well throughout his career: take care of the ball.
Wish #3: Connor Williams Turns It Around
Expectations were sky-high for second round pick Connor Williams. A starter in week 1, injury and poor play sidelined him in favor of Xavier Su'a-Filo. With Zack Martin out for the game, Williams has another opportunity to shine. This time he'll be lining up as the team's right guard between C Joe Looney and RT La'el Collins.
It's very important to remember Williams is only a rookie. Just because we're used to offensive line rookies to have immediate success for Dallas doesn't mean every one the team brings in will be as great starting off. A rough start is not the end of the world for Williams. Also worth noting, the majority of his playing time came under now-fired OL coach Paul Alexander. I'm convinced he'll turn things around and will become an important player for the Cowboys soon.
For now, I wish he takes advantage of the opportunity to play and does a great job to be considered again for the LG spot once Martin returns.
Wish #4: Amari Cooper Keeps It Up
The impact Amari Cooper has had on this team is quite frankly unbelievable. He should really be seen as this season's savior for the Cowboys. While the defense is winning games, without Cooper the offense would still be terrible and results wouldn't be the same. He has more than justified the first round pick the Jones traded away to get him.
In a big, road game like this one, I hope he keeps it up and has another huge performance. Whether it is multiple scores or a 100-yard game, I simply want to see him shine again.
Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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