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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.