The Dallas Cowboys are heading into free agency, which opens March 13th, in really good shape. The Cowboys will be able to be aggressive in the free agent market if they want to. They have the 10th most cap space in the NFL. It could make for a fun free agency period for the front office and Cowboys Nation, however, we know how this team has felt about spending on outside free agents since being burned by the Brandon Carr signing.
In years past, they've opted to bargain shop. Last year was a departure from the norm though, as they chased the mythical unicorn that is Sammy Watkins last offseason.
Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don't make.
They haven't generally been a team that chased big-time free agents, though this could be the season that all changes with several free agent safeties that could be immediate upgrades.
We know they're going to spend a lot of money on their own with Demarcus Lawrence coming free and Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dak Prescott looking for contract extensions, but they're could Ben opportunities to bring in a star from another player to come where The Star.
I hope Jerry Jones has his signing hand ready, it's going to be putting in a lot of work over the next couple of months.
For the last couple of weeks, I've had people on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Google+, MySpace, AOL Chatrooms, and via USPS correspondence express concern about whether the Dallas Cowboys will be able to afford all their guys and chase free agents.
Not to worry Cowboys fan, with a little salary cap and contract gymnastics, the sky's the limit.
Let's take a look.
Current Cap Space
According to OverTheCap.com, the 2019 Salary Cap is estimated to be around $190 million. After the release of Terrance Williams, the Dallas Cowboys are expected to have nearly $48 million in cap space available to them when free agency opens on March 13th.
When you look at that number by itself, it doesn't look like a lot with big money contracts coming to DeMarcus Lawrence, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones. Remember, though, the salary cap may be a fixed number, but contracts are pliable, meaning the team can do several things to create cap space through releases, how they structure new contracts, and restructures.
We've said it before and we'll say it again, the Dallas Cowboys will have the money they need to sign the players they want to sign.
Sean Lee, Linebacker
Age and injury catch up to everyone and this is where we are with All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee who will be turning 33 in July. Lee's career has just been unlucky from the time he set foot in Dallas.
Since coming to the Cowboys in the 2010 draft, Lee has only played in 64% of the possible 149 games that the Dallas Cowboys have played in that time frame. Contrast that with a player like Zack Martin who has played in all but two games in his five-year career. That's a 92% availability rate for his career.
The Dallas Cowboys don't typically pay age. The difficult choice with Lee is that he's long been a leader for the Dallas Cowboys. However, with the emergence of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, it's extremely difficult to justify a $7 million cap hit to a part-time player.
Allen Hurns, Wide Receiver
Allen Hurns was a roller coaster ride in 2018.
First, it appeared he was brought in to be an upgrade at the number two spot. Then when the Cowboys shocked the world and released Dez Bryant, he immediately moved up the wide receiver pecking order, but was generally ineffective. After the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper, Hurns became somewhat of an afterthought in the wide receiver snap distribution. Then he was lost in the win over the Seattle Seahawks with a gruesome ankle injury.
Allen Hurns is a fine player, but the Cowboys could get $5 million in cap relief by parting ways with the former 1,000 yard receiver.
A couple weeks ago, I outlined why I think Hurns could be a solution to the problem facing the Cowboys if Cole Beasley walked away. Hurns best attributes shine when deployed in the slot and asked to run over the middle of the field.
Coming off of the ankle injury, the Cowboys could easily move on and use that $5 million to extend one of their own or go after a big name in free agency.
Unlikely, but not Impossible Releases
The next few players are players that will most likely be on the squad in 2019. But as we saw with Dez Bryant, there can always be surprises.
Joe Looney, Center
The 2018 season seemed almost sunk when news came down that Center Travis Frederick was diagnosed with Guillen-Barre Syndrome during training camp. One of the stories of the 2018 season, was the play of Frederick's backup Joe Looney. Looney may not have been the most valuable player, but you can't understate how important he wasn't to the success the Dallas Cowboys had in 2018.
We've seen what happens when backups who are incredibly inferior to the starter they play behind see action. Think back to Atlanta in 2017. If the Cowboys get better play from Chaz Green and Byron Bell, that game and perhaps the season turns out differently. Kind of like when Cameron Fleming filled in for Tyron Smith this season. It was a completely different result. Was Fleming perfect? No, but he wasn't a disaster and the Cowboys were able to win games without their All-Pro left tackle.
Joe Looney is going to be with this team unless someone loses their center and wants to trade for him. In the event the Cowboys wanted to get some cap relief, they could save $1.5 million in 2019, with only $125 thousand in dead money on the cap.
I don't see them making this move, but for those of you curious, there are the numbers.
Joe Thomas, Linebacker
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch got all the glory at the linebacker position in 2018, and for good reason, but Joe Thomas was an important piece to the puzzle as well. He provided excellent depth and a lot of good snaps for the Cowboys in 2018, which is why I think he's back next year.
He only saves you about $2 million on the cap, but if you didn't want to pay a backup linebacker $2 million, then you could part ways with him.
Jeff Heath, Safety
Jeff Heath is a solid player, but gets relied upon for a little more than he should. He'd probably be best served with being a rotational safety in the NFL. He has a penchant for making plays, but also has some maddening snaps as well, like the final play against the Rams where Jared Goff was able to scramble for a first down. Heath never saw the bootleg and was late getting to Goff to keep him from picking up the first down.
The Dallas Cowboys like him as a player and he's likely to stay with the team. He helps on special teams and provides valuable depth.
If they were to move on, they could save $2.5 million.
La'el Collins, Tackle
It's not often you hear people talk about releasing a starting tackle, and I'm certainly not here to advocate for that.
Collins has had some up and down games, but in his short two-year stint at right tackle he's been pretty good. He's stood tall against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
His contract will carry him through the 2019 season, but if the Dallas Cowboys wanted to part ways, again, not saying they should, they could save a whopping $8.5 million in the salary cap.
$8.5 million could be the cost of Earl a Thomas or a Tre Boston. That's pretty big chunk of change.
When it comes to restructures, the Dallas Cowboys have been selective over recent years with who they choose to flip the switch on.
A restructure doesn't change the money owed to the player, just changes when the pay out happens. When a team and a player agree to a restructure, the cap hit or base salary is lowered to a more manageable amount and the difference is paid out as a bonus. The bonus is then spread out evenly over the remaining years of the contract.
Player A has four years remaining on their deal with a cap hit of $16 million per year for the rest of the contract. The team and player A agree to restructure the contract to decrease this season's base salary to $1 million dollars. The $15 million difference is then paid out as a bonus and then the cap hit is added to the final three years. So instead of the cap hit being $16 million per year for the remainder of the contract, it is now $21 million per year.
The problem with restructuring contracts is that you better hope that the players you restructure make it to the end of their contract otherwise you could end up with big dead money holds on your cap.
The Dallas Cowboys could restructure the following players:
Tyron Smith, Tackle
The Dallas Cowboys All-Pro Left Tackle may be the best draft pick they've made in the last 10 years. He's been one of the best in the game at his position for nearly his entire NFL career and until recent seasons, had been incredibly reliable.
According to Over The Cap, if the Cowboys decided to restructure Smith's contract, they could get $7.26 million added to the salary cap this season.
That's a big number, which would help you get your hands on a top safety or defensive lineman in free agency. The reasons why you wouldn't do it surround Tyron's health.
He's missed games each of the last three seasons because of back issues. He's signed through the 2023 season, which is his age 33 season. It's entirely possible that he continues to play at a high level through the end of the contract, but you'll always be a bit concerned about his back.
Zack Martin, Guard
If Tyron was the best draft pick, Zack Martin is a close second. He's been the definition of reliability as he's provided elite guard play through the first five years of his career making the All-Pro team each of his first five seasons.
If I were managing the cap for the Dallas Cowboys, it would be a no brainer to restructure Martin who is signed through the 2024 season; his age 34 season. Offensive lineman can play at a high level well into their 30's barring injury and Zack has the ability to be one of those guys. At his current pace, he could one day end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
By restructuring Martin, the Dallas Cowboys could save $7.36 million on the 2019 salary cap.
Travis Frederick, Center
Last summer was a scary situation for Travis Frederick and by all accounts his recovery is going well. It sounds like he should be ready to go by training camp, and if that's the case, there's no reason to believe that Frederick won't be the player we've all come to expect and missed during the 2018 season.
He's a leader on the offensive line. He's an excellent communicator and really good at blocking other big humans.
Getting Frederick back for the 2019 season is as big of an upgrade as you could have on an offense. He changes everything. He helps set protections and call out stunts. He will make Conor Williams a better guard just by being present. The offense as a whole will be better by having Frederick available.
Like Smith and Martin, there's no reason to believe that he won't play out his current contract at a high level. Even if he's only 75% of his previous self because of the illness, that's still a really good football player who is worth every bit of the $10 million a year he's getting paid.
Travis Frederick has five more years left on his contract. If the Cowboys were to restructure his deal, they could gain another $4.1 million in cap relief this offseason.
Tyrone Crawford, Defensive Line
If ever there was a player that was a victim of his contract it's Tyrone Crawford. The Dallas Cowboys signed him to an extension thinking he would be the answer at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot. He was good on his rookie deal but his contract was more of a projection than a deal based on prior production.
Unfortunately, Crawford hasn't lived up to his deal, but he's been a reliable and versatile player for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play both at defensive end and defensive tackle has been huge over the years and he's come up with some timely defensive plays.
Crawford has two years remaining on his contract that runs through the 2020 season and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Cowboys keep him around. He's a leader on the defense and he gives you good quality snaps. As they continue to wait for Randy Gregory and/or Taco Charlton to take steps forward, Crawford is a guy that they like and will continue to find snaps for.
If the Cowboys restructured Crawford's contract, they could get a little over $3 million in cap savings this year. $3 million may not sound like a lot, but in combination with the other moves they could make with the cap, it can help. Every bit helps when constructing a roster. That money could go to paying for the 2019 draft class.
The Dallas Cowboys front office has a lot of decisions to make this offseason and several of them will be in the form of extensions for their own players. They'll have to figure out a way to use the contracts to their advantage.
If they did everything that could be an option to them, they could create another $48.22 million in space in the salary cap. If they didn't release any of the “unlikely releases,” they could still free up another $33.72 million by releasing Lee and Hurns and restructuring Smith, Martin, Frederick, and Crawford.
So, they'll be going into the offseason with at least $48 million in cap space, but through a few moves could have as much as $81-$96.22 million in cap space when it's all said and done.
None of this even accounts for the way the Cowboys could structure the contracts of Elliott, Dak, Cooper, Lawrence, and Byron Jones. With some smart salary structuring, they won't necessarily have to eat much of their cap hits in year one of their new contracts.
Don't worry Cowboys fans. The Cowboys will be able to create enough money to get the things done that they want to get done. If they don't sign anyone of note in free agency or extend your favorite player, it won't be because they couldn't afford to.
It'll be because they didn't want to.