When the league year begins on March 18th at 3:00 pm, the Dallas Cowboys will be in an excellent position to approach their own players, free agency, and the draft with ample salary cap space to restock their team to make a run in 2020. Despite the popular narrative that the Dallas Cowboys will struggle to sign their top pending free agents and still be able to field a competitive team, this is perhaps the best cap situation the Dallas Cowboys have been in over the last decade.
As it has been since Stephen Jones and Will McClay took more prominent roles in the Cowboys' front office, the free agency spending will likely resemble that of 2019. Last offseason they took chances on some lower tier free agents like Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, and a player looking to bounce back in Randall Cobb. Aside from the drops, the Cobb signing was a home run and Covington and Hyder were solid rotational players, even if they didn't make much of a splash on gameday.
Where they missed in free agency last year was in the opportunity to add an impact safety to their defense. Jeff Heath was fine, but he's limited in what he can be for a defense. If they so desire, they may find themselves with an opportunity to make a significant addition in free agency if players like Defensive Tackle Chris Jones or Safety Anthony Harris hit the unrestricted free agent market.
Current Cap Space
At the moment, without figuring in the future contracts of Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and possibly Byron Jones and Robert Quinn, the Dallas Cowboys have $77 million in cap space heading into the 2020 offseason. That number ranks fifth in the NFL behind only the Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That's a huge number and one that the Dallas Cowboys can work with to get their impending free agents under contract, find some new starters, and add some quality depth.
As InsideTheStar.com Senior Writer Jess Haynie wrote in his piece, the Dallas Cowboys are in a really good position where dead money is concerned. Dead money represents the amount of guaranteed money still owed on a contract for a player that was released or traded.
In 2020, the Cowboys will owe just under $2 million in dead money from a combination of the Taco Charlton, Mike Jackson, and Mike White contracts. That $2 million pales in comparison to the numbers they carried after Tony Romo retired and Dez Bryant was released. The Dallas Cowboys are one of just 16 teams in the NFL to carry $2 million or less in dead money toward the 2020 cap.
Getting players on an existing contract to take a pay reduction isn't something that happens very often. The Cowboys were able to talk Brandon Carr into a pay cut a few years back and there were rumors that Dez Bryant was willing to take a reduction to stay with the team, but the Cowboys opted to move on. Generally, players are asked to take a pay cut or get released and inevitably, the player refuses and released.
It has already been reported that Defensive Lineman Tyrone Crawford is willing to take a pay cut in order to stay with the only NFL team he's known. Crawford, who is set to make $9.1 million is also a popular “cap casualty” option as the Cowboys could save $8 million if they were to release him this offseason.
Though a reduction may not provide the same cap savings as an outright release might, the benefit for the Cowboys is that they can still have the player on the roster. Tyrone Crawford is unlikely to be a 10 sack guy for the Cowboys in the future, but his flexibility and leadership are valuable commodities. Especially for a defensive coordinator like Mike Nolan who wants to use multiple fronts. Crawford can play as both a 3-4 and 4-3 defensive end as well as a 4-3 3-technique defensive tackle for the Cowboys.
If they're able to save $4 or $5 million on his 2020 contract, I'd be all for bringing him back. For reference, Randall Cobb cost the Cowboys $5 million in 2019. So a contract reduction for Crawford could potentially mean bringing back Randall Cobb or signing his replacement.
The Dallas Cowboys have made a habit of restructuring contracts to give them more cap space in years where they weren't as well situated. In 2020, they have some options to restructure and could use those options to keep everyone they want to keep that is heading to free agency.
Restructuring contracts is a way to minimize the current year cap hit by converting the base salary into a bonus and then evenly dispersing the cap hit over the remainder of the contact. For example, if player “X” has a 2020 cap hit of $10 million and you want to restructure the cap hit to be $4 million for the current year, the remaining $6 million would be spread evenly over the remainder of the contract. If the player has two more years on his deal, it would add $3 million to the cap hit for the next two years. If player “X” has three years left, then $2 million a year would be added to the players cap hit for the remaining three years on the contract.
The risk in restructuring deals is that the player doesn't reach the end of the contract and you're left with dead money on the cap after they're no longer playing for you.
Per OverTheCap.com, the Cowboys could restructure DeMarcus Lawrence and save $12 million, Zack Martin and save $8 million, Tyron Smith and save $7 million, or La'el Collins and save $4.5 million. Each of these players are still in their prime and could still reach the end of their contract. Tyron Smith's back issues could limit how effective or available he is throughout the remainder of the contract.
Restructuring Jaylon Smith could create another $3.5 million and doing the same to Ezekiel Elliott could add another $4.8 million to the cap. Simply based on Jaylon Smith's injury history and the career-span of running backs in the NFL, I'm doing everything I can to not restructure these contracts.
By restructuring Martin, Tyron Smith, Collins, and Lawrence, the Cowboys could potentially create another $31.5 million giving them nearly $110 million in cap space this offseason. Throw in restructures of Jaylon and Ezekiel Elliott and that pushes their cap space closer to $120 million.
That would be more than enough money for them to get long-term contracts done for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, and Robert Quinn as well as bring back Randall Cobb and sign some players in free agency.
The only contracts of substance that would net the Dallas Cowboys any significant cap space would be the aforementioned Tyrone Crawford and Punter Chris Jones.
Like I mentioned before, by releasing Crawford, the Cowboys could gain $8 million in cap space, which is a big number. That's a significant amount that could be used to re-sign their own players or use to add depth at several positions. However, the benefit of keeping Crawford on a reduced salary might make more sense than releasing him.
By releasing Chris Jones, the Cowboys could create a little more than $2 million in cap space. Now you might be thinking, $2 million isn't that much money on a $200 million cap, but when the player isn't performing to the contract's expectations, it makes them expendable if they can find a suitable replacement.
The other option, though it's less desirable to me is to release Swing Tackle, Cameron Fleming. Fleming has started three games each of the last two seasons for the Cowboys as Tyron Smith and La'el Collins both missed time due to injury. Sure, his $5.25 million cap figure is a bit much for a backup offensive lineman, but it makes sense to hold onto him.
Tyron Smith has missed three games each of the last four seasons because of injury. Having someone with the experience that Fleming has is invaluable. He's not a perfect player by any means, but he's a guy you can count on.
Even with four players heading to free agency deserving of big-time contracts in Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, and Robert Quinn, the Dallas Cowboys are in the best shape they've been in with the salary cap in as long as I can remember. Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay have done an excellent job setting the Cowboys up to have enough space to sign their guys and still be players in free agency if they choose to do so.
Though it hasn't translated to a Super Bowl, their free agent fiscal responsibility has put them in an excellent position to have enough room to lock up their franchise quarterback, his favorite receiver, and two of the best players on the Cowboys defense. Though the narrative persists that the Dallas Cowboys won't have enough to pay everyone, the reality remains they can pay each of them and pay them handsomely, if they want to.
The Cowboys already have $77 million available to them per Over The Cap if they don't do anything else via releases or restructures. Because in a long-term contract a player's cap hit is generally much less than the average annual salary, there's a way for the Dallas Cowboys to fit those four big-time contracts under the cap and still have money to do re-sign their own players and do some shopping in free agency.