If the Cowboys are going to handle their 2022 offseason business then some significant cap-related moves will be necessary. While these aren’t the only ways that Dallas might deal with the situation, who could end up as salary cap casualties over the next few months?
According to Over The Cap the Cowboys are currently set to be $13.5 million over the 2022 salary cap. This is even after you account for the large number of impending free agents who aren’t currently factored into that number.
With so much talent potentially departing in 2022, Dallas has to be concerned about shedding other key players in the name of the cap. That’s why their first moves will no doubt be restructuring the contracts of mainstays like Dak Prescott and Zack Martin for a projected $23.5 million in relief.
Remember, restructuring is not the same as a player taking a pay cut. It converts base salary into a signing bonus, leaving the player equally compensated and actually giving them greater job security as it creates additionally dead money in the later years of the contract.
While those moves with Dak and Zack will at let get the Cowboys back in the black, it won’t leave much for re-signing key free agents like Randy Gregory, Dalton Schultz, Jayron Kearse, and others. That brings another group of players into the discussion.
Today we’re going to look at guys who could wind up on the street as true cap casualties; released for financial reasons more than performance. Some of them could also be restructured, but these are all players who Dallas will have to think twice about before potentially extending their job security.
WR Amari Cooper
$16M cap space if released
While he only played in one less game this year than the last two, Cooper only had 865 receiving yards after topping the 1,000 mark in each of the last two seasons. Playing injured contributed, but so did a surprising lack of utilization in Kellen Moore’s offense.
Cooper is a perfect example of the dilemma in front of the Cowboys when it comes to these restructuring decisions. He has $20 million in base salary to work with but is coming off a down year. Amari is still only 27, though, and Dallas also has to be worried about losing both Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson in free agency.
Amari’s future in Dallas comes down to the team’s belief that his talent will be better utilized with offseason adjustments. A big one may be coming if OC Kellen Moore takes one of the several head coaching jobs he’s been interviewing for.
Another option, given Cooper’s still-attractive age and production, is to trade him to an interested party. But like the Cowboys themselves, that next team would have to be willing and able to deal with that high base salary by either eating it in 2022 or working out a restructuring.
But as we mentioned earlier, restructuring now makes it more cap-unfriendly to move on from Amari down the road. It’s a trigger that Dallas can only pull if they’re confident that changes on offense will allow Cooper to get back to his full potential as a primary weapon for Dak Prescott.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
$8M cap space if released
“Tank” is scheduled to have the second-highest cap hit on the roster after Prescott in 2022. Dallas can shave $8 million of that $27 million hit by releasing Lawrence outright, or $19 million in 2022 (pushing another $8 million onto the 2020 cap) by making him a June-1st cut.
While the $19 million option obviously sounds much nicer, remember that the Cowboys won’t get that cap space until June 1st. They won’t have it for the main free agency period in March and April or even for the small post-draft flurry that usually comes in May.
While he only played in seven regular-season games last year due to a broken foot, DeMarcus hit the ground running upon his return. He had three sacks and a forced fumble in the six games after the injury, not to mention an interception that he returned for a touchdown. Even with Micah Parsons and Randy Gregory making the most noise, Tank still made himself heard.
But being a secondary playmaker and the most expensive guy on the defense aren’t a good combination. Dallas can put that cap space towards keeping Gregory or making some other improvements, hoping that promising rookie Chauncey Golston could step into DeMarcus’ role next season.
Lawrence is another one that the Cowboys could restructure. But they have to be sure that he will remain an impact player now and probably 2023 if they decide to kick the can down the road on his dead money.
OT Tyron Smith
$5.49M cap space if released
After playing in just 11 games and showing signs of regression in his play, Tyron’s days as the Cowboys’ left tackle may be numbered. But without a clear way to replace him in 2021, Dallas may ride it out one more year before finally making that big change at one of their most critical positions.
It’s become an unfortunately consistent trend now with Smith. Every offseason we hear how he’s feeling great and healthier than ever, and then he misses a huge chunk of games. After missing three every season from 2016-2019, Tyron missed 14 in 2020 and six this year.
In addition, Smith was one of the worst performers on the Cowboys’ offensive line in the playoff loss to the 49ers. So even when he’s on the field now, Tyron isn’t the consistent All-Pro we’ve enjoyed since 2011.
That being said, $5.49 million is meager compared to the big hole that Smith’s exit would create. Dallas isn’t going to hand the job of protecting Dak Prescott’s blindside to Terence Steele, Ty Nsekhe, or Josh Ball. Adding an upgrade through free agency would be expensive and the draft is too risky to rely on.
I expect Smith to get one more season with the Cowboys. They can start working on the replacement plan for 2023 now and then release him for increased cap savings next year. But given recent history, a strong backup plan for Tyron’s 2022 absences will be needed.
CB Anthony Brown
$5M cap space if released
Despite one of his best seasons yet, Brown may not be able to survive the Cowboys’ financial concerns and influx of younger CB talent. They can clear $5 million in cap space by cutting Anthony outright and have enough options behind him to make it potentially painless.
With Trevon Diggs obviously locked into one starting role, Dallas could go into 2022 with Kelvin Joseph and Jourdan Lewis rounding out their top three. They also have young talent like Nahshon Wright and Reggie Robinson under contract for developmental depth. Veteran C.J. Goodwin is primarily here for special teams but can also play CB in a pinch.
While Dallas would hate to lose Brown after his three INTs and 17 deflections in 2021, he also struggled at times with penalties and overall coverage. And now with Joseph waiting in the wings as a former 2nd-round pick, Anthony’s expendability will probably be realized in the coming months.
TE Blake Jarwin
$4.25M cap space if released
Jarwin being a cap casualty would be a slam dunk if Dalton Schultz wasn’t about to become a free agent. But depending on the market for Schultz and Dallas’ desire to bring him back, Blake could wind up keeping his job and even moving back up to a starting role this offseason.
Schultz should be able to demand about $13-$15 million annually based on his high production and recent TE contracts. If Dallas re-signs him then they could bring down the cap hit in the first year with some creative structuring.
But whatever maneuvering they do, the Cowboys would likely need to free up some of those funds by releasing Jarwin. They could turn to Sean McKeon as a receiving TE2 next year or draft a mid-round prospect.
It’s entirely possible though that Dallas will be content to go back to Jarwin as their starter, having just handed him the job two years ago. He only lost it because of a season-ending injury in 2020 and Schultz’s emergence during that time, but is still just 27 and perhaps an even more dynamic receiving option.
K Greg Zuerlein
$2.5M cap space if released
This one seems like a no-brainer after the veteran’s rocky two years with the Cowboys, but John Fassel is fiercely loyal to his guys. And at this point after annual NFL inflation, Zuerlein’s contract isn’t that expensive compared to the upper half of the league’s kickers.
While he’s only the 17th-most expensive kicker in the NFL currently, Greg’s performance isn’t even commensurate to that. He was one of the least-accurate on both field goals and extra point attempts.
Given his struggles, Zuerlein could easily be released for other reasons than just the salary cap. And if the Cowboys do seek to improve the kicker position through free agency, they’ll likely have to pay the next guy even more than Greg’s getting now.