Cowboys Executive VP Stephen Jones addressed the media yesterday at the 2022 NFL scouting combine. Particularly striking from his comments were the different tones he used when discussing the contracts and futures of WR Amari Cooper and RB Ezekiel Elliott with the team.
Amari and Zeke are both in the top-five for scheduled salary cap hits this season. Cooper will count $22 million against the cap and Elliott will come in at $18.2 million as their contracts are currently designed.
The big difference between them is the amount flexibility that Dallas has on their deals. Cooper has only $6 million left in dead money on his contract, meaning the Cowboys could save $16 million by trading releasing him or about $12.6 million in a restructure.
Elliott's deal is far more restrictive. Having already been restructured in the past, Zeke still has $30 million in dead money and can't be cut outright. Even making him a June-1st cut would only zero out this year, pushing dead money to 2023 and giving no relief to the 2022 cap.
The Cowboys can get $9 million in cap space with another restructure on Elliott's contract. But as you just read, that immediate help can haunt you further down the road.
With this difference between Cooper and Elliott already well known, many have naturally been focused on Amari as a potential trade target or cap casualty this offseason. Based on the differences in tone and language he used yesterday, Stephen Jones appeared to be showing that the Cowboys front office has similar thoughts.
First, notice the staunch support given in Jones' comments about Ezekiel Elliott:
I want Zeke on my team. You talk about playing through some injuries, I mean, he is a competitor. I think he's a damn good running back and I think he's going to help us win. Obviously, his contract, his money is guaranteed. He's going to be here.
Quite the endorsement, right? But it really rings hollow when you look at the last part of the statement and know the reality of Zeke's contract.
Dallas doesn't have a choice but to support Elliott. And while he's not getting as much credit as he deserves for still having 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns in a “down year,” and especially while playing through a knee injury, there's no denying that Zeke hasn't been the same guy who earned that huge contract in 2019.
Hopefully needed renovation on the offensive line and better personal health will get Elliott back to his former glory. But that hope is all the Cowboys have right now as Zeke's contract gives them no alternative.
Now, for a much different flavor, check out what Stephen had to say when asked about Amari Cooper's future with the team:
It's too early for me to address that. I don't want to address any of that as far as the details of the contract.
Yikes! Jones was only one level above this reaction to that question.
With receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson plus TE Dalton Schultz all about to become unrestricted free agents, you'd think Dallas might be more committed to keeping one of their few contracted offensive weapons in house. But Stephen's comments suggest that the team is not only exploring options with Cooper but may have already moved on from him in their hearts.
Granted, Amari's production was down in 2021 from previous years. It was his first full season without at least 1,100 receiving yards (only 865), although Cooper did match his career-high with eight touchdowns.
With CeeDee Lamb clearly having moved into number-one status, Dallas' willingness to part with Cooper and use his cap space elsewhere isn't entirely unreasonable. But without Gallup, Wilson, or any other receiver of consequence signed to help fill the depth chart behind Lamb, the Cowboys are risking a massive depletion of offensive talent.
There could be more to this story than just on-field performance and cap numbers. Cooper's choice to not get the COVID-19 vaccine may have cost him and the Cowboys two critical games this year as he missed the Chiefs and Raiders in November.
With Jerry Jones lauding his team for its high vaccination rate throughout the year, Amari's decision was possible contentious or divisive behind the scenes. And even if the front office respected his choice, that embarrassing home loss on Thanksgiving might've made it harder.
The vaccination factor is speculative, of course. Even if the decision to part with Cooper is purely driven by the salary cap then that would be justifiable given Dallas' situation. They have to clear $24 million just to meet the cap and even more if they want to retain, replace, and upgrade talent throughout the roster.
What is clear, though, is that one of the de facto general managers of the Dallas Cowboys spoke differently about two of their biggest stars' futures. If Stephen Jones' comments are reflective of the organization's stances on them both, Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott probably won't be teammates anymore in 2022.