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 K Brett Maher’s 63-Yard Field Goal Sets New NFL Record
After hitting a 63-yard field goal last night in the Dallas Cowboys' win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Kicker Brett Maher now owns the NFL record for most field goal made at 60 yards or longer. It was the third 60-plus FG of his career and second so far this season.
Maher hit a 62-yarder last week in Dallas' loss to the New York Jets. That kick tied him with Sebastian Janikowski and Greg Zuerlein for having two career field goals of 60 or more.
Now Brett stands alone in that category. Last night's kick also was just one yard shy of Matt Prater's record for the NFL's longest field goal; Maher hit from 64 yards in 2013.
If Brett Maher ever gets a chance to kick in Denver, he may have a great shot at breaking Prater's record as well. According to NBC's data from last night, Maher's kick would have been good from 66 yards out.
It was a good night overall for the Cowboys kicker. Maher had two other makes from 26 and 29 yards.
Despite his heroics at times, Brett Maher has been one of the least accurate kickers in the NFL the last two years. Even after last night Brett is hitting just 71.4% of his field goals so far in 2019; that ties him for 25th in the league.
The most puzzling aspect of all with Maher is how much he struggles with shorter range kicks. You almost have more confidence in him kicking from 60 yards out than attempting an extra point.
Few kickers could survive that kind of performance and uncertainty, but few can do what Maher can with his long range ability. It's a risk/reward situation that the Cowboys are continuing to work with.
For today, at least, Maher and his team are basking in the glory of a great game. Let's hope both can keep up the positive momentum.
Cowboys Defense Dominates in Crucial Win vs Eagles
Coming into yesterday's battle for NFC East supremacy against the Philadelphia Eagles the Dallas Cowboys defense was looking to regain some swagger. The Green Bay Packers were led by Aaron Jones who had a career day with 182 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago in a 34-24 beatdown of the Cowboys. Last week at Metlife Stadium, the New York Jets got a career day themselves from their former third overall pick in Sam Darnold who threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns in his return from Mononucleosis that kept him out since Week one. The Cowboys were handed their third consecutive loss 24-22 and their season was headed down the drain.
It would be paramount for the Cowboys defensive unit to set a tone and they didn't waste any time doing so. The Eagle's first possession would only last five plays as Jaylon Smith forced a fumble by Tight End Dallas Goedert that was recovered by Maliek Collins. Just two plays into their second drive, Carson Wentz was strip-sacked by All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence inside the Eagles own 15 which was recovered by Antwaun Woods. Both turnovers led to scores for the Cowboys as they took an early 14-0 lead in the games first six minutes.
After the Eagles scored on a seven-play 87-yard drive with a little over four minutes to go in the first quarter they would only run 12 plays the rest of the first half, and the Cowboys went into the locker room with a commanding 27-7 lead.
The second half would be a continuation of the first 30 minutes of play. After an exchange of field goals in the third quarter, the Eagles were simply out of their misery early in the fourth. Wentz was intercepted by Safety Xavier Woods and he committed his second fumble of the game on the very next drive. In the end, the Cowboys whipped the Eagles from start to finish 37-10 and claimed outright first place in the NFC East.
There were several encouraging signs defensively for the Cowboys vs the Eagles. Maliek Collins matched his season total with five tackles and also recovered a fumble. Both starting defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn each had a sack showing exactly why the Cowboys put this combo together, to terrorize quarterbacks. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis had four tackles and a sack, a great follow up to his four tackle performance with an interception a week earlier, further making his case to be the top guy at nickel corner in this defense. The old veteran Sean Lee didn't go unnoticed either as his seven tackles were tied for of the team lead. He got more snaps due to Leighton Vander Esch's early exit with a neck injury.
You expect an offense like the Eagles to make plays and score points eventually, but the Cowboys defense wasn't having any of it in this contest. In addition to giving up under 300 yards of total offense, they only allowed the Eagles to convert three third downs, go 0 for 2 in the red zone and forced four turnovers. That's a recipe for victory any Sunday.
Now, the Cowboys go into the bye week sitting on top the NFC East throne. This is the perfect time to get guys fully healthy with a clash against the New York Giants on the road awaiting them in two weeks. The Cowboys defense played with their backs to the wall and pulled out a big-time performance when they needed it the most. Consistency is what has kept them from looking like the top seven unit they were in 2018. Was this game the turning point? We shall see, but nonetheless, this showing by them was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Cowboys Get Good News on Vander Esch, Quinn Injuries After Eagles Game
The Dallas Cowboys got a big win last night over the Philadelphia Eagles, but there was concern that they also suffered some big injuries. But good news; despite their leaving the game and not returning, both LB Leighton Vander Esch and DE Robert Quinn appear to have avoided any significant issues.
Vander Esch suffered a neck stinger in the second quarter and did not come back. It appears he was held out as a precautionary measure, and the Cowboys' 21-7 lead at that point may have contributed to the decision.
Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch just told me he's good. First neck stinger. Disputes "history" of neck issues reports. Told me he would have continued playing but "wasn't up to me
Quinn's rib injury also occurred before halftime and ended his night. The veteran picked up his obligatory sack before going out, and it sounds like he should be fine for Dallas' next game.
From @GMFB: The #Cowboys got a few injury scares, but LB Leighton Vander Esch (neck) and LB Robert Quinn (rib) are expected to be OK. https://t.co/ld1mncRkNw
These defensive standouts join a host of Cowboys starters who are going to benefit greatly from the team's bye week.
Dallas went into the game with injury concerns to WRs Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb, OTs Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, and CBs Byron Jones and Anthony Brown. Of those, Brown was the only one who did not play last night.
Still, all of these players need a week to rest and be ready for the long haul of the regular season.
The Cowboys will get back to work in Week 9 with a road trip to New York, facing the Giants on Monday Night Football.
Thankfully, it looks like Leighton Vander Esch and Robert Quinn will both be ready to play in two weeks.
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