There may be one game left in the 2017 regular season, but the Dallas Cowboys have been eliminated from the playoffs. While this final game may allow for some new footage of guys like Cooper Rush and Noah Brown, my eyes have already turned to the 2018 offseason. Today, we're going to look at the Cowboys' potential salary cap casualties.
What makes someone a potential cap casualty?
First and foremost, the amount that a player is scheduled to count against the salary cap would have to exceed the amount of dead money remaining on the contract.
For example, Sean Lee counted $7.3 million in 2017 but still had $14.4 million in dead money on his deal. Even if Dallas wanted to cut him, which obviously was never the case, it wouldn't have made any financial sense to do so.
In 2018, Lee will count $11 million against the salary cap with only $7 million in dead money. Dallas could save a minimum of $4 million if they cut Sean, but of course nobody expects or wants this to happen.
Unfortunately, not everyone on the Cowboys has Sean Lee's staying power.
Here are the players whose contracts and performance have left them vulnerable to be released during the 2018 offseason.
DE Benson Mayowa
- 2018 Cap Hit: $3.85 million
- Dead Money: $1.1 million
- Cap Savings: $2.75 million
This is a likely move given Benson Mayowa's decreased role in 2017.
While he led the Cowboys in sacks last season (6), Mayowa was dwarfed this year by the rise of DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving, plus the first-round selection of Taco Charlton. Not only are these players all likely to return in 2018, but we may finally see Randy Gregory back in a Cowboys uniform.
If Gregory is reinstated by the NFL and still able to play, he would immediately take over the role Mayowa has now as a weak-side pass rusher and rotational player. Dallas will also hope to finally get Charles Tapper involved regularly, assuming he can stay healthy.
While $2.75 million doesn't sound like a lot, it is enough to pay for a decent veteran backup at many positions.
That money may be better spent on a new reserve offensive tackle. It could be used to pay the salary of your first-round rookie. It could also go into the pool for re-signing Lawrence, Zack Martin, Anthony Hitchens, and any other free agents you want to bring back.
More than likely, Dallas will find a better use for that money than keeping Benson Mayowa around for one more season. He's been a decent rotation player, but younger and better options have passed him by.
TE James Hanna
- 2018 Cap Hit: $3.5 million
- Dead Money: $750 thousand
- Cap Savings: $2.75 million
A strong blocker who occasionally flashes in the passing game, James Hanna may have played his final season in Dallas.
He turns 29 in July and has younger players pushing in, like Geoff Swaim and Rico Gathers.
Not only does James have to worry about the young guys behind him, but the offseason could bring changes at the top of the TE depth chart. Dallas may be looking to add more explosiveness to the offense by signing or drafting a new receiving option.
If Jason Witten is still around, as most expect him to be, then that would push Hanna down the depth chart.
It's hard to see Dallas paying $3.5 million to any third-string player.
Even if there are no new additions, the Cowboys are going to give Swaim and Gathers every opportunity to take on larger roles. Like we discussed with Benson Mayowa, the money allocated to James Hanna could probably be better used at other positions.
CB Orlando Scandrick
- 2018 Cap Hit: $5.28 million
- Dead Money: $3.88 million
- Cap Savings: $1.4 million
While the basic cap relief from cutting Orlando Scandrick wouldn't amount to much, making him a June-1st release would make it more enticing. Dallas could get $3 million in 2018 cap space by pushing $1.6 million in dead money into 2019.
With June-1st cap casualties, it's important to remember that those cap savings don't become available until the actual June 1st calendar date.
That means you can't use the money during the major free agency period beginning in March.
However, that money can be used to sign draft picks, sign June-1st cuts from other teams, any other remaining free agents, or re-sign your own players.
For example, let's say Dallas puts a franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence to protect him during the offseason. They may spend the spring and summer negotiating his long-term deal and then be able use the post-June 1st Orlando Scandrick savings to help pay his new deal once it's finalized.
Scandrick is expendable because of the youth movement in the secondary.
Dallas has a solid top-three of young cornerbacks with Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis. They may decide to give Orlando one more year for veteran leadership and increased depth, but you can also see why they'd decide to let him go.
DE/DT Tyrone Crawford
- 2018 Cap Hit: $9.1 million
- Dead Money: $7.3 million
- Cap Savings: $1.8 million
Like with Scandrick, the basic savings aren't worth losing a versatile and capable player. But once you get into the June-1st conversation, potentially releasing Tyrone Crawford makes way more sense. Splitting Crawford's dead money over two season would create $6 million in cap space in 2018, and push $4.2 million in dead money to 2019.
That $6 million would likely cover the entire 2018 draft class and leave some leftover for other financial needs.
Deferring dead money to 2019 may feel like robbing Peter to pay Paul, but there is a reason this could be a sound strategy for Dallas.
The dead money from Tony Romo's contract is still hanging over the team through 2018. When that $8 million comes off the books in 2019, that is new space which can absorb some of these June-1st deferrals that we've proposed.
It's a way to facilitate necessary moves now, spreading the costs over two seasons.
All that said, Tyrone Crawford may have played his way into at least one more season with Dallas.
He started nearly every game and is a valuable defensive line piece who can play both end and tackle. Unless Dallas feels they have to use his cap savings to bring back DeMarcus Lawrence, Crawford will likely stay in 2018 to provide stability and a veteran presence up front.
WR Cole Beasley
- 2018 Cap Hit: $4.25 million
- Dead Money: $1 million
- Cap Savings: $3.25 million
Some of these are tougher to think about than others. Cole Beasley is a beloved fan favorite, but his decreased offensive role in 2017 and potential cap relief mean he has to be looked at.
After leading Dallas in catches and yards in 2016, Cole was fourth in both areas this season. He had four touchdowns, but was otherwise far less visible. Much of this was due to increased attention from opposing defenses, and perhaps also the sophomore struggles of QB Dak Prescott and absence of RB Ezekiel Elliott.
One reason Cole may be expendable is Ryan Switzer.
A fourth-round pick last year, Switzer was viewed by many as “Clone Beasley” and the guy who would eventually replace him. He's already taken over as the primary return man and may now be in line for a greater offensive role.
If Dallas is confident in Switzer's offensive ability and can save over $3 million by releasing Beasley, that's a move they can't dismiss lightly.
Again, this isn't something anyone is rooting for.
These last few guys are all fan favorites. These are tough conversations to have, but the salary cap doesn't adjust for legacies or jersey sales.
Trying to win a championship often means making hard choices with beloved veterans.
Just ask the New England Patriots.
K Dan Bailey
- 2018 Cap Hit: $4.2 million
- Dead Money: $800 thousand
- Cap Savings: $3.4 million
If the Cowboys believe that Dan Bailey's 79% field goal accuracy this year is solely due to his groin injury and will not linger into next year, then this is one you can probably take off the board. However, if Dallas is concerned about the kicker's play going forward, there is a nice chunk of cap space to be gained by releasing him.
Dan Bailey turns 30-years old next month.
He's been as good as they come since 2011, but he wouldn't be the first kicker to lose the gift after so many seasons. Not many guys last as long as Morten Anderson or Adam Vinatieri.
If Bailey gets healthy and finds his rhythm again over the offseason, then there's nothing to talk about. He's still one of the two best kickers in the game today (Baltimore's Justin Tucker is the other). And 30 is hardly old for kickers.
Still, after a horrible December ,and with that salary attached to him, you can't ignore Dan Bailey in this conversation.
TE Jason Witten
- 2018 Cap Hit: $6.5 million
- Dead Money: $0
- Cap Savings: $6.5 million
This is highly unlikely, but we have to talk about anybody who can give you that much cap relief with zero dead money.
Jason Witten's contract with Dallas is clearly structured so that when he decides to hang it up, the team won't be stuck with any dead money. If Witten decides to play in 2018, they will likely convert base salary to bonus money to help lower his cap number.
If this was New England, we may be having a different conversation. The Patriots might take that cap space regardless of the veteran's wishes, but Jerry Jones isn't going to play hardball with arguably the greatest Cowboy of the modern era.
Jason Witten has said he plans to return next year, and it would be the most shocking move I can remember for the Cowboys not to go along with it.
But after such a disappointing season, you have to wonder how desperate Jerry Jones is getting. With Dallas moving to a more Patriots-style philosophy regarding free agency and roster management, could they potentially surprise us with how they handle Witten?
WR Dez Bryant
- 2018 Cap Hit: $16.5 million
- Dead Money: $8 million
- Cap Savings: $8.5 million
The most talked about Cowboy right now, Dez Bryant's current and future worth are being hotly debated after a quiet season, disastrous game last week, and his own defensive comments.
If these factors weren't enough, Dez has the highest cap hit on the team and offers the most cap relief of any single player.
Dallas wouldn't even have to wait for June 1st to get significant cap relief.
They could take that $8.5 million into free agency and get a franchise player at almost any position. If you were intrigued by the idea of Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas coming to Dallas, this is one way to make that happen.
The issue would be what's left at wide receiver.
You'd have to spend everything you save from cutting Dez — and a little more — to replace him with a new franchise WR. Unless you're wholly confident that this new player would be an upgrade, that could easily wind up as a zero-gain move.
The front office has yet to give any indication that they would part with Dez Bryant this offseason. From a purely fiscal sense, it's far better to wait until next year, when his dead money would be cut in half.
If the Cowboys can find another way to bring in some receiving talent this offseason, such as through the draft or with other cap space, Bryant could still be dangerous with less attention and another offseason to develop chemistry with Dak Prescott.
Still, $8.5 million is a lot of cap space.
Dallas cut a declining DeMarcus Ware in 2014 for $7.4 million in cap relief. If it happened to him, it could happen to Dez Bryant too.