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Deep Dive: Inside the Dallas Cowboys’ 2018 Salary Cap

John Williams

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Are the Dallas Cowboys in for Another Quiet Free Agency in 2018?
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Super Bowl is over and finally we and the Cowboys can get to the business that is the 2018 NFL Season. It couldn't come soon enough. We need some good draft and free agency talk to cleanse our palates from the taste of the Philadelphia Eagles winning Super Bowl LII.

The Dallas Cowboys have some decisions that, on the surface, seem to be difficult ones when it comes to their free agent defensive talent. There may also be some opportunities to make a splash in free agency or through trades.

What we're going to look at here is what the options are for Dallas as they approach the offseason. Namely, what they can do with the salary cap to make it all work.

As we've seen in the past, what the cap room number looks like today can be vastly different tomorrow. The salary cap itself may be a hard cap, but the contracts have some flexibility that allow you to do some things that give you more room than you might think.

Before we get to the options, let's talk about what we already know.

Salary Cap Number

Spotrac.com is estimating the 2018 salary cap figure to be about $187 million, which would give the Dallas Cowboys about $19 million in cap space this offseason.

The league average is roughly $33 million. Dallas' salary cap room ranks them 21st in the NFL.

For perspective, the San Francisco 49ers will have about $114 million in cap space heading into the offseason, while the Philadelphia Eagles have a negative cap number at -$7.2 million.

Dead Money

In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys will have approximately $13.7-million dollars in dead money applied to the cap. The biggest hit is the Tony Romo contract. He will count $8.9 million in dead money alone.

Other highlights are the bad signings of Nolan Carroll and Cedric Thornton, who count $2.5 and $2 million.

Cowboys Wishlist:

Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, WR Dez Bryant, C Travis Frederick (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

Salary Adjustments

Dez Bryant's situation has been discussed ad nauseam this offseason, and some of it is for good reason. He didn't have a good 2017. To keep or not to keep Dez was discussed by our very own Mauricio Rodriguez. Read his work, it's a great debate.

I don't want to get into what Mauricio wrote, just want to mention the facts and figures surrounding any Dez Bryant activity.

If the Dallas Cowboys decide that the best course of action is to release Dez Bryant, they will save $8.5-million dollars on the 2018 salary cap. However, they will also add $8 million in dead money toward the cap as well.

A restructure for Dez wouldn't make sense coming off a down season, and getting to the latter stages of his prime, you don't want to keep paying players past their production point. The best option for the Dallas Cowboys is to keep Dez and attempt to work out some kind of salary reduction that lowers his cap number.

Tyrone Crawford is another player they might look at for a pay reduction, as his cap number of $9.1 million is looking a bit hefty for his production. He's a player they could do several things with, as I'll discuss later.

Restructuring Contracts

The option the Dallas Cowboys have been most fond of over the years when it comes to helping their salary cap space is restructuring contracts. We've seen them do it with Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, and other players like them who they know will be on the roster.

A restructure, according to Spotrac, converts "that player's current base salary to their veteran minimum, pushing the remainder into a signing bonus that pro-rates over the remaining years of their contract."

For players who have already been restructured, they'll still carry a decent sized cap hit, but you'll still be able to save some money.

DL Tyrone Crawford

If they restructure Tyrone Crawford's deal, they'll get about $4 million added to the 2018 cap.

Crawford isn't a popular player because he hasn't lived up to the contract he was given several years back. He's still a productive player with ability to play both defensive tackle and defensive end, and had 4.5 sacks this season.

LT Tyron Smith

They could again restructure Tyron Smith, though with back issues this season, it doesn't seem as wise. Smith's current contract doesn't expire until 2024, though if he regains his health, his contract will be a bargain at that point. The restructure would prorate the money over the rest of the contract.

We all hope he can regain some health consistency and return to the All-Pro player he is, but backs are tricky. A restructure would get them a little more than $7 million in salary cap savings. That $7 million would then be spread out over the rest of the contract, in addition to his salary cap number for those years.

If healthy, Tyron will be with the team and he's young enough (27) where a restructure doesn't kill you. Offensive linemen play well into their 30s a lot of the time and with some luck, Smith will do the same.

Travis Frederick

Travis Frederick is another player who will have the consistency and the health to consider restructuring. Restructuring his contract would save the team a little more than $7-million dollars on the 2018 cap.

He's shown no signs of injury or decrease in ability to worry about pushing money down the road.

He's one of the best centers in the NFL, he isn't going anywhere. At 27, he still has several prime years left that you don't worry about kicking the can down the road.

TE Jason Witten

Jason Witten -- the timeless one -- will be on the roster in 2018 unless he decides to retire. The team can save $3.5 million dollars against the cap by restructuring him, thus pushing $3.5 million down the road to spread over the remainder of his contract.

While his age and the fact his current contract wouldn't expire until 2022 would leave many skeptical of restructuring, the savings could help this year and help them contend this year.

Takeaway Tuesday: 2

Dallas Cowboys WR Cole Beasley (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Releases

Let's clarify a few things first. I'm not saying they should or shouldn't release a player; I just want to discuss the options. Secondly. They aren't releasing Terrance Williams. His deal is not conducive to a release until 2019. So let's forget that notion right now.

A Post-June 1st designation is a good option for certain releases, as it typically allows for more savings on the 2018 salary cap and less dead money. The problem is, you don't get the cap relief until June 1st. The only early benefit is that it opens up a roster spot.

The Post-June 1st money would be used to extend a player like Zack Martin or get a long-term deal done with DeMarcus Lawrence before the franchise tag deadline.

Let's take a look at the options.

Pre-June 1st Releases

WR Cole Beasley

Cole Beasley is entering the last year of his contract and could save you $3.5 million if released, with only $1 million in dead money on the 2018 salary cap. I don't think it's likely Bease gets released. However, if they were going to make a move at WR, with Brice Butler's contract expired, Beasley could be the next guy out the door.

Cole's 2016 gave us the idea that perhaps he's a legitimate WR2 in the NFL, and one of the better slot receivers. His 2017 saw him crash back to his pre-2016 numbers that are typical for a WR3 or lower on the depth chart.

Again, I don't think they release Beasley, but it's a possibility with Ryan Switzer waiting in the wings.

DE Benson Mayowa

Mayowa is a good depth player. Someone who gives a consistent effort, even if he's not always showing up in the stat sheet.

Releasing him wouldn't get you a whole lot of money, only $2.7 million, but it would open up snaps for your 2017 first-round draft pick and again save you a bit of money. His dead money would be about $1.1 million.

There's no benefit to designating him a post-June 1st release.

TE James Hanna

James Hanna's another player who is entering the last year of his deal and would get you a cap savings of $2.7 million on the 2018 cap with a minimal cap hit.

It's nothing against Hanna's play, he's just caught behind a future Hall of Famer in Witten and could be considered a progress stopper. The team is high on Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin, and with Geoff Swaim around, Hanna is caught a bit in the numbers game.

If they see Gathers, or any of these other guys as capable of doing the job that Hanna's done, it seems very unlikely they would keep him.

Post-June 1st Releases

CB Orlando Scandrick

Orlando Scandrick has become a popular player among Cowboys Nation since he was drafted in the fifth round out of Boise State. He's been a good player for the team, but the writing is on the wall for his future.

With Dallas drafting four defensive backs in 2017, including three cornerbacks, and Anthony Brown in 2016, Orlando's age and production aren't matching his salary at this point. If he's released, it would be as a Post-June 1st designation, which would change the savings and dead money on the salary cap.

As a post-June 1st designation, the Cowboys would save $3 million with $2.3 million in dead money. If not designated post-June 1st, then the cap savings are only a little over $1 million with nearly $4 million in dead money for 2018.

DL Tyrone Crawford

People are going to look at Tyrone Crawford's cap number and at his production and shout for him to be released. He'll be a popular name on Cowboys Nation's chopping block.

It's a possibility, but it seems that the team actually likes Crawford as a versatile defensive line player.

If they were to release Crawford, it would have to be as a Post-June 1st designation, otherwise, they would only save about $1.8 million on the 2018 cap, while $7.3 million would be dead money still on the 2018 salary cap. As a post-June 1st designation, the Dallas Cowboys would save $6 million on the 2018 cap with a little over $3 million in dead money.

As I mentioned before, he could also be a candidate for a reduced salary agreement or a restructuring of his contract.

TE Jason Witten

Witten is also an option for a post-June 1st cut designation. If Witten plays, you can guarantee it's with a Star on his helmet.

If it happened, it would be strictly for accounting purposes. This move would only be to free up some more cap space to work on deals for Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence.

His current cap figure of $6 million isn't outrageous, but has some room to be reduced. He wouldn't cost you anything in dead money, so there could be some room to maneuver to make it work better for the team.

Restricted Free Agents

DL David Irving

David Irving is a difficult salary projection because of his status as a restricted free agent (RFA). 2017 showed he is one of the better defensive lineman in the NFL. Even if they place first or second-round  tender on him, any team that signs him to an offer sheet will have to hope the Dallas Cowboys pass on matching that offer.

The Cowboys aren't going to let him go. It was Will McClay who saw the potential in him when he signed him off the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad, and Rod Marinelli who has helped David Irving unlock his enormous talent.

The posturing by the Dallas front office is just their way of negotiating. They want Irving to return, and he will return, but they want to get it as close to their number as possible.

They aren't going to let seven sacks in eight games go away. Like Lawrence, they may want some protection against injury or make his contract a bit more incentive laden, but again, they aren't going to let him walk. Even for a second-round pick.

The best path forward for Irving is to place a first-round tender on him and get an extension done. The top 4-3 DTs get paid an average anywhere from $7-9 million a year, with the guaranteed money typically around 40-50%.

It's never wise to set the market, especially on a player you can match any offer with, like Irving. The Cowboys will have the last say, and that say will be him wrecking folks with a Star on his helmet in 2018.

DeMarcus Lawrence, Broncos

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence

Unrestricted Free Agents

DE DeMarcus Lawrence

DeMarcus Lawrence is going to get paid; it's as simple as that. And it won't be by anyone other than the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys want to keep him, and he wants to stay.

He deserves to be paid like one of the top 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. The only hold up is going to be the amount of guaranteed money given to Lawrence. Based on some of his injury history, the Cowboys will probably want some protection.

Spotrac.com projects Lawrence will earn about $14 million per year over five years, which is a reasonable number for someone who nearly led the league in sacks and is only 25 years old. A five-year contract would carry Lawrence into his early 30s, which would get the Cowboys his prime years.

It's very likely that Dallas places the franchise tag on Lawrence to put off the long-term deal until their post-June 1st money is freed up. The franchise tag number -- the average of the top-five salaries at his position -- would be around $14.6 million.

Olivier Vernon has the richest contract for a 4-3 defensive end at $17 million per year. Jason Pierre-Paul is right behind him at $15.5 million per year. Man, do the Giants love spending some money on pass rushers.

Four of the top-five DE contracts received at least 40% of their contract guaranteed, therefore we're looking at a deal that could be as rich as $90 million total ($18 million per year) with $36 million guaranteed.

Dallas will have to franchise tag him so they don't have to bid against other teams.

LB Anthony Hitchens

Anthony Hitchens is coming off his best year as a pro and will get a nice offer on the free agent market. Spotrac projects his market value to be around $6.4 million per year.

He has become a valuable member of the defense with his ability to play all three linebacker positions and play them well. With Sean Lee entering his age-32 season and his extensive injury history, Hitchens may be more of a priority than we realize.

If they can bring back Hitchens at the projected number, that would be awesome, but it's possible that he gets offers in the free agent market that drive up his price.

With former Dallas Cowboys LB Coach Matt Eberflus headed to Indianapolis to be the defensive coordinator, there's at least one team that will have interest.

LS L.P. Ladouceur

L.P. Ladouceur is 36 years old and an unrestricted free agent as well. This isn't a position that gets a lot of attention from Dallas Cowboys fans, but that's because L.P. is so good at his job, you don't notice him.

You only ever notice the long snapper when something goes wrong, and how many times in his 13-year career has anything gone wrong? Not many.

He won't cost the team a ton to re-sign if he wants to continue playing. Hopefully that's the case, because he, Chris Jones, and Dan Bailey have made up one of the more consistent kicking game operations in the NFL for several years now.

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Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant, RG Zack Martin, C Travis Frederick (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Contract Extensions

We know Zack Martin will get a contract extension. That's as certain as death and taxes.

According to Over The Cap, the richest contract for a guard is Kevin Zeitler's with the Cleveland Browns. Zeitler is making $12-million annually on the $60-million deal he signed in 2017, with $23-million guaranteed.

That's the starting point for any negotiations between the Dallas Cowboys and Zack Martin.

He'll be paid as the top guard in the NFL because he is the top guard in the NFL. So we're looking at an annual salary around $12.5 - $14 million per year, with at least $25-million guaranteed over five years.

If the Dallas Cowboys and Zack Martin are able to get a contract extension done this offseason, it could cut his 2018 salary cap number from $9.3 million to just under $7 million. Not huge savings, but in the salary cap era, every bit counts.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

As my mathematician grandmother always says, "If you take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves."

The Dallas Cowboys have a lot options to make the math work in their favor to create a lot of room under the cap, if they want it. While some of these moves may not be big, the cumulative effect could be.

If we've learned anything about Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay, it's that they are a creative group that figures out a way to get things done.

Salary Figures, cap space, and dead money information gathered from OverTheCap.com and Spotrac.com


I didn't start out as a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quickly as I could. I grew up a Joe Montana fan when he was with the 49ers and followed him to the Chiefs, until we moved to Texas. I've now been a Fan of the Boys since the Dark Days of the Post-Aikman, Pre-Romo era of abysmal quarterback play, now relishing in more than a decade of franchise quarterbacking for America's Team.

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6 Comments
  • Travis Diggs

    They cant let Hitchens go, he’s always there when Sean lee goes down EVERY SEASON.

    • EverybodyTalks

      Totally agree. He is a starter/back-up LB that is invaluable to the LB corp. I could make an argument that to lose Hitchens is more critical to our defense than Irving.

      • John Williams

        I think the only way he walks is if the number gets too high or he gets to walk in as a MLB1 for a team. Here he’s still competing for snaps with Jaylon and Lee.

  • TexHomaHeat .

    I don’t understand how the Cowboys can be in such bad position with the salary cap when they have only average players. I just don’t get it!

    • John Williams

      Most of it comes down to paying this year’s cap with next year’s money a lot of the time through restructures.

      They aren’t in a bad spot. They could very easily double the cap room with just a few moves.

      That said, they do have some bad contracts on the books at the moment with guys like Dez, Tyrone, and Terrance Williams that make it difficult to get out from under.

  • Steve

    I agree that we are in better shape this year than we have been in a while and I know we have to clean our own back yard signing up first before we go out and get someone, and I believe we resign everyone mentioned except Hitchens which I agree with you guys that we try to resign him but ultimately at what cost because somebody with tons of cap space will throw a massive contract at him and then we r done because we won’t get into a bidding war for Hitch mainly because we can’t. Yes 2 bad contracts and 8.5 mil left from Tony Romo still burns but that comes off after this year so the window is there we just NEED TO BE SMART!

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys OL Fails To Crack NFL.com’s Top 10

Kevin Brady

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Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, offensive line

Often considered a top unit in football, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line seemed to take a step back in 2017. Mostly due to injuries and free agent departures on the left side, the Cowboys were unable to form the same solid unit we have seen in years past.

Despite their struggles, most would still consider them a top 5-10 offensive line in the NFL. At least, that's what I'd expect considering they still feature three All-Pro caliber players upfront.

Matt Harmon of NFL.com put together a list of the top 10 offensive lines in football based on performance in the 2017 season. The list was strictly developed through the use of next gen stats, which defined pressure as "pass-rushing play in which a defender gets within 2 yards of the opposing quarterback at the time of the throw or sack." In addition, "yards gained before close" was taken into account. This metric is meant to measure "the amount of rushing yards a running back gains before opposing defenders come within 1 yard of the player."

After compiling all of these stats, the Cowboys offensive line was left off of the list completely. Maybe even more surprising, however, was that the Philadelphia Eagles' line failed to crack the top ten as well. That's two lines with 3-4 Pro Bowl caliber players each missing the cut.

According to Matt Harmon the Cowboys allowed a pressure on 28.6% of Dak Prescott's dropbacks, 12th highest in the league. Dallas also ranked 20th in the league in YGBC in 2017.

While I do have some issues with the methodology of these statistics, the final result is actually hard to argue with. Down the stretch the Cowboys offense was downright pathetic at times. Regardless of how highly we thought of them prior to the year, the offense didn't perform to their standards, or the standards of a top ten unit.

Heading into 2018, however, I do expect this offensive line to begin to regain form. La'el Collins should continue to improve on the right side, and he is already an adequate starting right tackle regardless. I also expect Dallas to address their left guard spot, potentially within the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft.

In the end the success of this line may hinge on the health of Tyron Smith, though. When healthy, Smith is the best left tackle in all of football. But that "when healthy" caveat has certainly hurt the Cowboys offense.

The way the front office handles their offensive line this offseason will play a huge role in the success, or lack thereof, of the Cowboys in 2018.


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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere

After playing sparsely for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017, veteran cornerback Bene Benwikere is set to be an unrestricted free agent. Could he stay in Dallas, or will he have to find work elsewhere?

Dallas was concerned about its CB depth with heavy reliance on young players and Jourdan Lewis barely participating in the offseason. Therefore, the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for Benwikere just before Week One.

After a stellar rookie season with the Carolina Panthers in 2014, Bene had suffered a steep fall before landing in Cincy. Injuries and poor play got him cut midway through 2016 by the Panthers, and then Benwikere bounced from Miami to Green Bay before finally signing with the Bengals in the 2017 offseason.

Though a few years removed from being an All-Rookie Team standout, Bene Benwikere is still just 26 and may still draw interest from scouts who remember his better days. He is likely counting on that, because the Cowboys' secondary is starting to fill up.

Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: CB Bene Benwikere 1

Dallas Cowboys CB Bene Benwikere (#23)

The Cowboys currently have exciting sophomores Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis expected to start in 2018. Anthony Brown is back for his third season and will be active on game days.

Orlando Scandrick's future is cloudy, but Dallas won't get much cap relief from releasing him this season. They may elect to keep the veteran for one more year, which would all but fill out the CB depth chart.

Even if Scandrick leaves, talk that Dallas may move Byron Jones back to corner from safety would only leave Benwikere in the same disadvantaged position for finding work.

The best chance that Bene Benwikere has to stay with the Cowboys is if new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard remembers him from 2014. Coaches often feel that can get more out of a player than the last guy, and Richard may see potential in Benwikere that his last few teams couldn't unlock.

Four years ago may be too long, though, and especially with a fresh new crop of young players coming into the league. Especially if they keep Scandrick, Dallas may want to use the rest of their roster spots on younger prospects.

As it stands, Bene Benwikere is unlikely to return to the Cowboys. However, given the flashes of potential he once showed in the NFL, you can't be certain that Dallas won't want to give him one more chance.


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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Free Agents: OL Joe Looney

Jess Haynie

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Joe Looney, 49ers
James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys backup offensive lineman Joe Looney was active for all 16 games of 2017 and never had to start. That is exactly what you want from a reserve player, and Looney has been relied on as security for the interior o-line for two years now. However, he enters 2018 as an unrestricted free agent.

A six-year veteran, Looney turns 28 years old in August. He has two years in the Cowboys system and is still in his physical prime. Able to play guard or center, "Jumbo Joe" is a nice value with versatility and familiarity.

Dallas got Looney on the cheap in 2016, signing him to a two-year deal at just $1.68 million. While he hasn't been seen much over the last two seasons, coming out of the Cowboys' offensive line could raise his profile in this free agent market compared to last time.

For example, the last guy to hold Joe's role in Dallas was Mackenzy Bernadeau. Dallas paid him $5.7 million from 2014-2015 to be the versatile backup at guard and center. Looney is at a comparable point now in his career.

Joe Looney

Dallas Cowboys G/C Joe Looney

Dallas may not want to give Joe Looney that kind of raise, but they may have to given other issues on the line. Starting guard Jonathan Cooper is also a free agent and was injured in Week 17. Chaz Green was tried at guard last year and failed.

Even if they didn't need Loooney to play guard, he is also the backup center and the currently the best candidate on the roster for that role.

While nobody wants Looney as the starting left guard in 2018, but Dallas may not want to give Cooper a new deal given his injury history. La'el Collins appears locked in at right tackle, so the Cowboys may feel the need to pay more to keep Looney in case the offseason doesn't provide a better option.

If the Cowboys are inspired to retain Joe Looney, it could mean raising his annual salary from about $800k to close to $3 million. Even with more cap flexibility than they've had in recent years, that's still a big jump that Dallas won't take lightly.

Clearly, Joe Looney's return in 2018 is not an easy decision. He could be a solid veteran depth option for some teams and might even find starting work if someone's desperate enough.

With Dallas facing some uncertainty on the offensive line, that gives Looney the leverage in any upcoming contract negotiations.


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