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Cowboys Salary Cap: Sean Lee is Expensive But Worth It

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Blog - Sean Lee: Comeback Player Of The Year? 3

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 | TIGHT ENDS | GUARDS & CENTERS | DEFENSIVE TACKLES | OFFENSIVE TACKLES |
DEFENSIVE ENDS | QUARTERBACKS | CORNERBACKS | RECEIVERS

Cowboys Capology: Linebackers

Anytime you have one of the NFL's best players at a certain position, you expect that he's going to be expensive. Sean Lee takes up a big chunk of salary cap space but, now that he's stayed healthy for two seasons, he's worth every penny. Thankfully, most of the other linebackers are still on their cheap rookie deals.

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' linebackers are scheduled to cost against our 2017 salary cap.

Sean Lee

LB Sean Lee

Sean Lee

2017 Cap Hit: $12.45 million

If you still think of Sean Lee as awesome but oft-injured, it may be time to reassess. Lee missed one game last year and that was simply for veteran rest in Week 17. In 2015, he missed two games for a concussion. It appears, hopefully, that Sean's knee issues are finally behind him.

While Lee's 2017 cap hit is high, it's commensurate with the other elite players at his position. Pass-rushers from 3-4 schemes Von Miller and Justin Houston will count over $20 million each against they teams' caps. The best comparison in the league would be Panthers star Luke Kuechly, whose cap hit is just about $300k more than Sean's.

That said, the Cowboys do have some options for getting Sean Lee's cap hit down to a more team-friendly level. We will discuss those further down the article.

Jaylon Smith

LB Jaylon Smith

Jaylon Smith

2017 Cap Hit: $1.48 million

No matter who Dallas drafts or signs this offseason, Jaylon will probably still have the most-anticipated debut for 2017. Considered an elite, top-five draft prospect last year before a major knee injury, Smith is looking healthy and ready to improve the Cowboys defense next season.

If Jaylon Smith is as good as projected, the three years left on his rookie deal will be a tremendous bargain for the Cowboys. His most expensive cap hit will be just about $2 million in 2019. As we just discussed with Sean Lee, elite play-makers at linebacker don't usually come cheap.

Damien Wilson

LB Damien Wilson

Damien Wilson

2017 Cap Hit: $732k

The former 2014 forth-round pick emerged last season as solid starter at the SAM, or strong side, position.  With Jaylon Smith moving in at middle linebacker, Wilson will likely have to fight for his starting spot with Anthony Hitchens.

If not for the eye injury that kept him out of training camp, Wilson might have been starting from Week One. Jason Garrett praised Wilson as one of the most-improved players during their May and June practices. Once he finally broke into the starting lineup in Week 9, Wilson continued to impress.

Hitchens has a major experience advantage over Wilson so that should be a fun competition to watch. Even if he loses out, Wilson will be a solid reserve player at minimal cost.

Anthony Hitchens

LB Anthony Hitchens (AP Photo/Scott Boehm)

Anthony Hitchens

2017 Cap Hit: $799k


As just mentioned, Hitchens may find himself back in a reserve role in 2017. We almost don't think of him as a backup after starting 36 of 48 games in his first three seasons. However, those have mostly come from Sean Lee and Rolando McClain missing time.

If Hitchens does wind up on the bench then Dallas might consider trying to trade him. He has a lot of playing experience and might net a mid-round pick. However, his low cap hit and ability to play all three LB positions is highly valuable to the Cowboys as a backup.

Kyle Wilber

LB Kyle Wilber

Kyle Wilber

2017 Cap Hit: $1.75 million

Dallas re-signed the veteran last offseason to a two-year contract. Wilber only started one game but provides good depth and some versatility as a former 3-4 scheme pass rusher.

With only $500k in guaranteed money left on his contract, Wilber is a name to watch as a potential salary cap casualty. More details on that below.

Mark Nzeocha

LB Mark Nzeocha (James D. Smith via AP)

Mark Nzeocha

2017 Cap Hit: $631k

One of the standouts from the 2016 preseason, Nzeocha injured his Achilles and wound up having a minimal role last year. He is highly athletic and still has two years left on his rookie contract. Dallas will be hoping for Nzeocha to emerge as a quality backup and special teams player this season.

Jeremiah George

2017 Cap Hit: $615k

A fifth-round pick of the Jets in 2014, George bounced from New York to Jacksonville to Tampa Bay during his first two years.  Dallas signed him to their practice squad last September and he stayed the whole season.

Free Agents

Justin Durant - The veteran's second stint with the Cowboys has likely come to an end. Turning 32 in September, Durant looked like an aging player last year and never could make consistent contributions. He had flashes, but likely  not enough that Dallas would want to pay him around $1 million for the veteran minimum.

Andrew Gachkar - Dallas might offer Gachkar a minimal one or two-year deal to return. He provides veteran depth and can play both the MIKE or WILL positions. He's also a core special teams player and a favorite of coach Rich Bisaccia, who brought Gachkar over from San Diego in 2015.

Rolando McClain - Our three-year roller coaster ride with McClain should finally be over. After injuries, drug suspensions, and general concerns about his effort and conditioning, Rolando isn't even eligible to play until October because of his last suspension, making it unlikely that any team will be giving him a look this offseason.

2017 Salary Cap Impact

Total Linebackers Cap Hit = $18.46 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 10.9%

Sean Lee

LB Sean Lee (Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Sean Lee's $12.45 million cap hit is obviously the big issue here. Thankfully, $9 million of that is base salary that the Cowboys could convert to bring down the cap. Lee is signed through 2019, so there are two years left after this season for kicking the can down the road.

A week ago I wrote about Dez Bryant's contract and how restructuring it could be dangerous for the Cowboys. I might've written similar article about Sean Lee in recent seasons, but now I feel like he's given us enough evidence to feel okay about losing our financial leverage.

Obviously, anything can happen. But after two seasons of good health and elite play, Lee has earned my confidence. If the Cowboys do restructure his deal in the next month, we'll know that he's earned theirs as well.

Potential Cap Casualties

The only guy who might be worried is Kyle Wilber. Dallas can save $1.25 million by releasing him, though that would leave $500k in dead money. Is that really enough savings to lose one of your few experienced backups?

Given Sean Lee's injury history and the remaining uncertainty with Jaylon Smith, Dallas will likely hang on to Wilber. If both of them were to be out at the same time, Wilber would likely start as the SAM while Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson slid into the other two spots.

With two veteran depth players likely leaving in Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar, I don't see Dallas discarding Kyle Wilber on top of them.

 


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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Dallas Cowboys

LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys

Brian Martin

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LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys

In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.

The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.

Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…

"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."

Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:


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The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.

Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.

If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).

As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.

Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?


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Dallas Cowboys

How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster

Jess Haynie

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Michael Jackson, 49ers

Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.

While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.

The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.

Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.

So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.

In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.

But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.


Kris Richard

Dallas Cowboys DB Coach Kris Richard

Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.

When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.

No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.

We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.

That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.

This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.

But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.


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Game Notes

DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win

Kevin Brady

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Kerry Hyder

Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.

Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.

As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.

Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.

Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.


A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.

Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.

"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli

Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.

Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.


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