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.
What Could June 1st Mean for 2019 Dallas Cowboys?
Some consider June 1st to be a critical date on every year's NFL calendar; it's own new wave of free agency. But will the 2019 Dallas Cowboys add any talent to the pool, and could they be interested in any players who get released by their current teams?
As you likely know already, teams may choose to cut players after June 1st so that they can defer some of the dead money from their contracts to the following season. It allows them to maximize salary cap savings in the current year.
For over a decade now, the NFL has also allowed teams to release up to two players prior to June 1st but still give them that designation. The team doesn't get the cap relief until June, but the player gets a chance to find a new home during the primary free agency period.
There have been almost no early June-1st cuts so far this year by any NFL team. That may lead you to believe that there will be similar inactivity when we actually hit that date on the calendar. But that may not be a very good tell.
Because teams don't enjoy any benefit from the early June-1st designation, except whatever good feeling comes from doing right by a former player, we hardly see it in action. Teams would much rather carry a player until after the draft and see what their need levels truly is before releasing them. It's rendered the early provision almost meaningless.
For the 2019 Dallas Cowboys, the one player whose situation and contract speak to a possible June-1st move is Defensive Lineman Tyrone Crawford.
Crawford's deal runs thru 2020, which is key since you need at least two year's left on the contract to utilize the June-1st deferment. A player with only one year left, like WR Allen Hurns, has the same cap relief regardless of when you cut him.
Releasing Tyrone Crawford either after June 1st or with the early designation would push $1.1 million of his total $4.2 million in dead money to 2020. It would increase the total cap savings from $5.9 million to $7 million for the Cowboys' 2019 salary cap.
Now Crawford is one of those guys, a valued veteran and team captain, who you'd think a team would've cut earlier if that was their intention. But Tyrone's value to the Cowboys has been fluid throughout the offseason.
The value went up when we found out Randy Gregory was suspended again. It remained high while contract negotiations with DeMarcus Lawrence dragged until early April. Crawford's ability to play multiple spots on the line meant he could be back in a starting role at DE in 2019.
But then Dallas re-signed Lawrence, traded for veteran Robert Quinn, signed Kerry Hyder, and drafted Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks. Throw in Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong coming back and there are already plenty of players at DE, especially if Gregory manages to get reinstated.
But even if Crawford isn't needed at end, what about defensive tackle?
The Cowboys spent their earliest 2019 draft pick, 58th overall, on DT Trysten Hill. He projects to play the same "3-technique" position that Crawford normally would.
On top of Hill, Dallas is bringing back Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Daniel Ross form last season. They also signed Christian Covington, a fifth-year veteran from the Texans.
Again, the numbers are pretty tight and the positions are full of younger talent. The Cowboys could easily conclude that they have plenty of DL options at this point and would benefit more from salary cap relief than from Tyrone Crawford's continued services.
Plus, we haven't even gotten into the legal issues that could cause Crawford to get suspended for a few game in 2019.
As far as current talent goes, the June-1st conversation really begins and ends with Tyrone Crawford. Other veterans who may not make it to the final roster, such as Hurns, Jeff Heath, or Tavon Austin, only have one year left on their contracts. June 1st changes nothing for them.
There could be a few interesting names that come available when other teams make cuts. Again, they could have made these moves well before now. But NFL franchises are generally going to do what's best for them, and waiting for the dust to settle from the draft allows for more informed decision-making.
One name we've seen tossed around a lot is DT Gerald McCoy from Tampa Bay, who would be an immediate upgrade over any of Dallas' current tackles. But would losing Crawford to add McCoy really be that cost-effective?
The market to really keep an eye on is at running back. The current free agency pool had dwindled down to Jay Ajayi, who is unlikely to accept a minor role behind Ezekiel Elliott, and a bunch of retreads. Perhaps other teams' cuts could yield a few more desirable prospects to help our RB depth.
For 2019 at least, June 1st may not mean very much. And it may mean even less for the Dallas Cowboys, who already could field a competitive team this year without any additional moves. They may be focusing their cap dollars solely on new contracts for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Zeke, and others the rest of this offseason.
Outside of potentially releasing or trading Tyrone Crawford, we may not see any major moves in Dallas until final cuts.
Kicker Matt Bryant Should Be the Final Piece of Cowboys 2019 Offseason
The draft is done, DeMarcus Lawrence is re-signed, and the bulk of free agency activity has passed. The 2019 Dallas Cowboys have more than enough talent to compete this season, but there is still one last move I'd wish they'd make. Veteran kicker Matt Bryant, still one of the NFL's best even at almost 44 years old, could be the final piece to this offseason puzzle.
The Atlanta Falcons' longtime kicker, and franchise scoring leader, was not retained this year despite another standout season. He made 20-of-21 field goals, with a long of 57, in 2018.
Why Atlanta didn't keep Bryant hasn't been confirmed, but perhaps the team was just looking to avoid hanging on one year to late. But Matt, who ranks eight all-time in FG accuracy (86.2%), doesn't think he's done. He tweeted the following from his personal account in February:
"Over this past year I’ve been asked numerous times about retirement and how I feel. Well, I’m not retiring and I feel fine and plan on feeling even better with some changes to my offseason program!
As of now Matt Bryant remains a free agent, and I think the Dallas Cowboys should be very interested.
If you go up and down this Dallas roster, kicker is arguably its biggest liability. Brett Maher had some highlight moments in 2018, and won two Player of the Week awards, but he also was one of the league's worst kickers in overall FG accuracy.
The problem with Maher is that you can't teach his best skill; the accuracy from the high 50s and even low 60s is incredible. It's a true weapon that you have a hard time letting go of, which was evident last year when Dallas dumped Dan Bailey for Maher at final cuts.
But Matt Bryant might be the best of both worlds. He's been a 91% FG kicker overall this last three years and has made 18-of-22 attempts from 50 yards out or more.
Maher only made 80.6% of his kicks in 2018. He went from 6/7 from long range, but that tells you how shaky he was from closer in.
Those closer kicks are worth the same three points that the longer ones are, and how'd you like it if Dallas lost a critical game because their kicker couldn't make a 35-yarder?
I get the fear factor with an older guy like Matt Bryant. Heck, the Cowboys let Dan Bailey go when he was still just 30. But Bryant hasn't shown the red flags that Bailey did; he's still kicking as well as he ever has.
If nothing else, Dallas has the cap space and circumstances to bring in Bryant for a true competition with Maher. If Brett has improved his game and keeps his job, then that's awesome. But why not add some pressure now, though a position battle with one of the all-time greats, and see what Maher's really made of?
Seasons have been made, and shattered, by one kick. Unless the Cowboys have good reason for confidence in Brett Maher's development from last year, they could be carrying a significant liability into a year where they're trying to push for a Super Bowl.
If Matt Bryant could provide even a small amount of additional security, isn't he worth it?
Cowboys RB Mike Weber’s Injury Scare Continues Concerning Trend
Rookie RB Mike Weber had a brief scare earlier this week with a knee injury in practice, but thankfully the MRI came back with a good report. However, as he fights to have a future with the Dallas Cowboys, this health incident is a concerning reminder of Weber's recent history.
One reason that Weber fell to the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft was due to battling injuries during his last two years at Ohio State. He lost his starting job in 2017 due to ongoing hamstring issues and also had to miss time last year because of a foot strain.
Carrying the load for the Buckeyes is a far different workload than being second or third on the Cowboys' RB depth chart. But this latest scare happened in early May, just two weeks after Mike joined the team and well before the more strenuous activities of an NFL offseason.
A practice injury can cost you just as badly as one that happens in a game. And with Dallas already thin at RB, it could leave them severely shorthanded if it occurs during the regular season.
Many have projected that the Cowboys' RB group in 2019 would have Ezekiel Elliott as the obvious starter and then rookies Weber and Tony Pollard behind him. While Pollard was drafted three rounds ahead of Weber, he's not built to take a large number of carries if Zeke were to go out.
If Mike Weber does make the team, he would be expected to take a sizable role if something bad happen with Elliott.
The "injury prone" label is disastrous for any athlete, but especially a guy with no real claim to a roster spot. If Weber causes concern in the front office about his durability, they may go a different way at final cuts.
Remember, Mike's not just up against Pollard and Darius Jackson for a roster spot. There are still plenty of veteran free agent running backs out there that Dallas could turn to if they're not confident about their young prospects.
This isn't too say that one scary moment in May, which ultimately didn't amount to much, is reason to cut bait with Mike Weber. But when you stack it up with his injury history in college, it does make you wonder how he'll do over the course of an entire NFL season.
Hopefully, Weber bounces back from this and has a great summer. Former Buckeye RBs have treated Dallas well the last few years, and it'd be fantastic if Mike can provide the same solid solid depth that Rod Smith did.
But this latest news is just a reminder of why Dallas can't rest easy at running back just yet, and why they may still have another move to make to prepare for 2019.
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