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: Receivers
The receiver group is arguably the toughest for the Cowboy's 2017 salary cap. Dez Bryant alone counts $17 million; the highest cap hit after Tony Romo of any player. They are also about to lose Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, creating holes that have to be filled. That's even more money Dallas will need to spend at an already expensive position.
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' receivers are scheduled to cost against the 2017 salary cap.
With the biggest cap hit in the entire NFL for his position, Dez has a lot to live up to on the field. 2016 was overall a down year for the franchise receiver; a mix of big and quiet games. The big change at quarterback certainly contributed, but seven NFL seasons have clearly taken a physical toll on Bryant as well.
Dallas could free up a lot of cap space by restructuring Bryant's contract. However, as I wrote about last month, there is tremendous risk in modifying Dez's deal based on his slowly declining play and injury issues. Even with about $12 million to potentially gain from restructuring Dez, the Cowboys need to strongly consider preserving their future flexibility to move on from Bryant if needed.
For now, the Cowboys have to hope for the best with Dez. They will hope that better health and a full offseason with Dak Prescott as the starting quarterback will allow Bryant to return to franchise form next year.
After leading the Cowboys in catches and yards last year, Beasley has emerged as one of the best salary cap bargains on the roster. He has replaced Jason Witten as the team's "security blanket" receiver, showing a great chemistry with Dak Prescott in 2016 in critical moments.
Not only does Beasley' own modest contract help our cap, but his big role in the passing game relieves any pressure to spend big on free agent Terrance Williams or his replacement. Dallas can afford to wait for a bargain, or perhaps use a draft pick, because that player will not have heavy expectations right away.
Is trouble brewing for the Cowboys' current return man? When Dallas signed a return specialist in January, we speculated as to what this meant for Whitehead's future. He is certainly not guaranteed to return.
Still, Whitehead has a minimal cap hit, versatility, and experience. With other holes to worry about in their receiving group, I expect Dallas will retain Lucky at least through the preseason. He will likely be fighting for his job, though.
The undrafted free agent was one of the stars of Cowboys training camp but failed to live up to that hype in the preseason. Jones had a few drops and did nothing to challenge for a roster spot. After a year on the practice squad, he returns and has at least one Cowboys insider projecting that he will be a factor in 2017.
I believe drafting and Andy Jones are a priority. https://t.co/A1E4mVHcDA
While counting on Jones to be one of your top three receivers isn't realistic, hopefully he's developed enough to replace Brice Butler at the fourth man.
A 4th-round pick by the Jets in 2014, Evans missed his rookie year with a shoulder injury. He was waived at final cuts the following season and then spent the year on the Jaguars' practice squad. He did not make final cuts with Jacksonvile either, eventually spending about a week with the Patriots.
It's unknown what's stopped Evans from impressing teams so far in his career. The Cowboys will hope that he can gain some traction in their training camp this year, as roster spots are definitely available in Dallas.
As was said when Dallas signed McDuffie several weeks ago, his experience as a returner could be trouble for Lucky Whitehead. He led the nation in kickoff return average as a senior in college and led the Canadian Football League in kickoffs last year. Given his limited projected upside as a receiver, special teams appears to be the focus in his joining the Cowboys.
Undrafted in 2013, "E.Z." spent two years on the Texans' practice squad. He has since bounced from the Dolphins to the CFL to the Seahawks. Dallas signed Nwachukwu, a Texas native and former Aggie, to a futures deal last January.
Brice Butler - Some thought that Butler would have a breakout year, especially once Dak Prescott became the starting quarterback. However, Butler's production dropped steadily and he was barely a factor in the offense. There is no reason to think that he'll return.
Terrance Williams - I wrote last week about how this year's crowded free agent market at WR might keep Terrance with the Cowboys. I think Dallas would be fine with him to keep the same place in the offense going forward, but only if his salary is commensurate with his supporting role. They are certainly not going to get into bidding war to keep Williams around.
2017 Salary Cap Impact
Total Receiver Cap Hit = $23.6 million
Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 13.95%
Whether or not the Cowboys do anything with Dez Bryant's contract is the biggest question. They could free up close to $12 million by restructuring him but have to think about the future as well. Right now, with only about $9 million cap space, Dallas may not have any option but to restructure Dez.
The next question is how much they will spend to replace Terrance Williams. While he was only the fourth option in the offense last season, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant are both on the decline. The next receiver we add may need to be able to step into a bigger role, especially if Bryant has one of his routine injury issues.
Coming off rookie deals, neither Williams or Brice Butler cost the Cowboys much more than the league minimum last year. Re-signing Williams or replacing him will mean a significant salary increase at the WR2 position.
The good news is that there will be plenty of options out there in free agency, which should help to keep the market price low. Dallas may be able to get a veteran like Kenny Britt or Torrey Smith for about $3-4 million per year.
The rest of the WR depth chart will likely be filled out with rookies or guys like Andy Jones. Dallas might bring in one more veteran on a minimum contract for insurance, but he would be competing with the young guys for a roster spot.
Breaking: Scott Linehan and Dallas Cowboys Part Ways
Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network is reporting that the Dallas Cowboys and Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan have mutually agreed to part ways following a tumultuous season that saw the Dallas Cowboys offense finish outside the top 12 three out of his four seasons in Dallas.
Sources: The #Cowboys are firing OC Scott Linehan. Taking their offense in a new direction. An announcement is coming.
Scott Linehan was brought in prior to the 2015 season and saw his offenses finish 31st, fifth, 14th, and 22nd in his four years as the Cowboys play caller. The 2015 season can be excused as the Cowboys rolled out Kellen Moore, Matt Cassell, and Brandon Weeden for 13 starts after Tony Romo was injured twice during the season, but the team 2-11 in those 13 starts and the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs despite a strong performance on the defensive side of the football.
The Cowboys saw an offense that finished fifth in the NFL in points in 2016 decline each of the last two offseasons and Linehan has been continually criticized by analysts, fans, and players as well.
Many believe that the reason that Dez Bryant and Brice Butler weren't brought back in the offseason was because of the public criticism of the offense and the play caller instilling the offense and that criticism has carried over to this season when Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper acknowledged that the Philadelphia Eagles were sitting on the slant routes that they had run all game. Dak mentioned that he changed Amari's route to a go route, which led to a 75 yard touchdown that helped open up the offense.
Cole Beasley has been frustrated with his role for much of the season and deservedly so. He was often non-existent in the offensive game plan until the final five minutes of football games.
In the running game, the offense had become too predictable and reliant upon jumbo formations that led to Ezekiel Elliott having to run against eight in the box anywhere from 25-30% of the time. For perspective, Todd Gurley only ran against eight-man fronts around eight percent of the time. Scott Linehan never looked to attempt to take players out of the box, instead insisting on motioning more players into the box for the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott to run against. It's amazing when you think about it, that Ezekiel Elliott was able to win the rushing title when facing loaded fronts as often as he did.
This was a move that needed to happen and the Dallas Cowboys didn't need to waste anymore time to make it happen. The offense had become stale and frustrating for the players as well as the fans. While Jason Garrett started the offseason saying he "didn't expect any changes," this was a move that absolutely had to happen for the offense to take a step forward. Below, you can read Jason Garrett's announcement on the move.
Cowboys have fired Scott Linehan
Even after the move for Amari Cooper, the offense looked better, but it still struggled at times to move the football.
The Cowboys have a young team with especially young players on the offensive side of the football. They have a quarterback who can throw from the pocket, but has excellent movement skills and capabilities of throwing the ball on the run. He's an excellent runner on designed runs. Despite us knowing all that, Scott Linehan looked reluctant to use him on designed quarterback runs that weren't read options or speed options. What you saw on designed runs in the Seattle game is what this team should be doing five times a game.
Now the question becomes, who should the Cowboys next offensive coordinator be? Our own, Staff Writer Brian Martin, laid out 5 Options to be the Next Offensive Coordinator earlier this week. I suggest you give it a read.
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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