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.
Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak
The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their second road win of the season against another inconsistent Atlanta Falcons team. As both try to get back to .500, this game will be filled with interesting matchups and implications. After upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20 last Sunday, the Cowboys need to get another upset win to keep being relevant in the league this year.
Here's this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist! I hope you enjoy and I encourage you to let me know what your wishes are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Stop Julio Jones' 100-Yard Game Streak
With the Atlanta Falcons sitting at 4-5, many have overlooked Wide Receiver Julio Jones' hot streak. In each of his last four games, Jones has accounted for more than 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Totaling 476 yards in his last four games, Jones is ready to face Cowboys' Cornerback Byron Jones.
Byron has certainly been a pleasant surprise in 2018, playing at a great level right now. He has faced Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins this year and made a good job of defending these "Tier 1" pass-catchers. It's worth noting the Cowboys are not making him "travel" with these players but rather keep him on a specific side of the field. That shouldn't change against the Falcons.
Wish #2: Contain WR Calvin Ridley
Back in April, Cowboys Nation eyed Calvin Ridley as a prospect who could end up wearing the Star on Sundays. However, Dallas passed on him and the Alabama product fell right unto the Falcons' lap. He's had a pretty good season and despite sharing the field with Julio Jones, he's done a great job as a rookie averaging 14 yards per reception.
The Cowboys need to contain him. While Dallas should feel comfortable with Byron doing his job, the truth is Chidobe Awuzie has struggled at times. Not that he's suddenly a bad player, but he needs to step up his game. Lining up against Ridley today will be a great test and one I wouldn't expect him to pass easily.
Wish #3: Score 28+ Points
The Cowboys have the huge advantage of going against a defense that ranks 29th in scoring defense. They did a nice job on Philadelphia last week and should continue to build on that success to do something they haven't done much this year: score a lot of points.
Scott Linehan's unit needs to do a better, more consistent, job. They've shown us they're capable of scoring, but they've also shown us their remarkable ability to seemingly forget how to do so. Blame it on play-calling, QB play, poor offensive line or whatever you prefer, it's a flawed unit.
They need to capitalize versus a poor defense like the Falcons' to find a steady rhythm.
Wish #4: Dak Makes This Falcons' Game a Turning Point
Last year, when Dak Prescott was sacked six times in Atlanta (five times by Adrian Clayborn) something changed for the Cowboys' young quarterback. Missing RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith that day, Prescott had one of the worse days in his career. It was a turning point for him as a QB and the public eye.
Now he has a chance at redemption. A shot at putting the Cowboys at .500 and reviving playoff hopes, as unlikely as it sounds.
I wish that's the case for the Cowboys young passer in Atlanta. As flawed as he is, I'm a fan of his. The kid leaves it all on the field.
Final Thoughts on Cowboys Matchup with the Atlanta Falcons
This week, like every week for the rest of the 2018 NFL season, is a must-win game for the Dallas Cowboys. Getting ready to face an Atlanta Falcons team that took the heart and soul of the Cowboys offense in last year's matchup, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have a lot to prove as they attempt to get back to the .500 mark for the fourth time this season.
It feels like the Philadelphia game was forever ago. Now that it's finally game day, here are some final thoughts on the Cowboys matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
Amari Cooper Breaks Century Mark
Amari Cooper has proven his worth in his first two games since coming over to the Dallas Cowboys from the Oakland Raiders. He's had 11 catches in the first two weeks and has made an instant rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott. I believe they take another step forward this week and Amari Cooper goes for 100 yards in just his third game with America's Team.
Cooper had 75 yards against the Eagles and 58 against the Titans. He's trending toward the 100 yard mark. If Prescott and Cooper could have connected on just one of the deep shots they missed on, Cooper goes for 100 last week. This week, Dak and Coop get another weak defense.
The Atlanta Falcons pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL. They have the sixth highest net yards per attempt number in the NFL and the sixth most yards allowed. They've also allowed the fourth most passing touchdowns; 21.
Since the Atlanta Falcons can score and move the ball with their passing attack, the Cowboys will have to throw to win this game.
Can Xavier Su'a Filo Continue to be an X-Factor
The Cowboys offensive line had their best game of the season on the ground on Sunday as they gashed the Philadelphia Eagles -- who were second in rushing heading into the game -- for 171 rushing yards. They did it by going right at the Eagles defense and were most successful when they used Su'a-Filo to get to the next level of the defense.
There's been a lot of talk about whether Su'a-Filo should continue to start when Connor Williams comes back and for me, it depends. Williams has had some problems with the strength that defensive tackles bring on the inside, but he's been getting better too.
If Su'a-Filo and the Cowboys offensive line plays well during this stretch that Williams is healing, then it would be a shock to see the rookie second round pick reinserted into the starting lineup.
Check out this week's film review on Xavier Su'a-Filo.
Dominant Defensive Duo
Jaylon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence has been exceptional this season. Jaylon Smith looks to be healthy and progressing to be what the NFL thought he would be coming out of college. A transcendant middle linebacker.
DeMarcus Lawrence sack numbers may not be as high as they were this time last season, but he continues to show that he's a dominant player on both pass and rushing downs.
Cowboys playmaking EPA, now with snap counts! The most efficient playmakers have been Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, Daniel Ross and Jourdan Lewis. "Playmaking EPA" = total EPA on failed plays forced through sacks, QB hits, turnovers, passes deflected, tackles, etc.
As you can see from our friend Daniel Houston, who manages Cowboys Stats and Graphics on Twitter points out, Smith and Lee have been the best playmakers on the team on a per snap basis. By just about every measure out there, those two have been worthy of Pro Bowl and perhaps All-Pro selections.
Playing for his Life
Chidobe Awuzie has been struggling this season. And that's stating it kindly to the second-year corner back. He's had decent positioning for much of the year, typically being right where he's supposed to be, but he's not making any plays of the football, which is something he was known for coming out of college.
There's something not quite right with his game this season as he's become the focal point for opposing passing attacks and for good reason. He can't stop anyone.
Well, this is the week to turn all of that around. The Dallas Cowboys need him to have a big week this week.
As humans, we know that when our interior isn't right, it doesn't matter what else we have going on on the outside, we don't function as well. The same is true for defense. If your interior isn't right, your defense isn't right. The Dallas Cowboys defensive interior is struggling with some health issues.
On the final injury report of the week, Defensive Tackles David Irving and Daniel Ross have already been ruled out, Antwaun Woods is doubtful, and Maliek Collins is questionable. If for some reason Maliek Collins isn't able to go, then it's probable that the team will go into the game without a functional one-technique defensive tackle. Even with Collins in the lineup, being down Woods and Ross means the Cowboys have to run Collins at 1T and Tyrone Crawford is your primary 3T defensive tackle.
With Crawford having to play inside this week it means a three-man rotation at defensive end of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Dorance Armstrong. They should be alright on the outside, but Crawford is one of their best run defending defensive ends. He's good on the inside, but you want to save him for your passing situations.
This is one of those games that I'm having a difficult time getting a read on. The Cowboys haven't been good on the road this season until last week at Philadelphia, one of the more difficult places to play in the NFL. In that game, they finally got their offense clicking through the air and on the ground.
This week looks like an opportunity for the Cowboys to continue to prove themselves offensively against an average to below average opponent.
On the defensive side of the ball, they're going to have their hands full with an Atlanta Falcons offense that is averaging more than 30 points a game at home and has one of the best receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones.
I think this is going to be a close game where both teams get into 20's in point scored and it comes down to who plays better offensively at the end.
My heart leans Cowboys, but my gut leans Falcons. So it should be a 20-20 tie. Really though, I'm going with the...
Who you got?
Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.
Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
- DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
- DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
- G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
- G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
- DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable
The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.
Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.
The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.
Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.
- LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT
It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.
The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.
Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.
So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.
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