(Click HERE for Part One of this two-part series.)
Yesterday we started looking at the roster and focused on the guys either definitely or highly likely to be in next year's training camp. Today the conversation turns to far more questionable players, those either entering free agency or with contract and performance issues that could lead to their release. This promises to be a more interesting and controversial discussion, so I hope you'll share your thoughts in the Comments section!
TIER 3 - The Probables
Players: L.P. Ladouceur, Kellen Moore, Rod Smith (RB), Vince Mayle, Rod Smith (WR), Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford, Chris Whaley, Casey Walker, Mark Nzeocha
Analysis: Everyone listed here is under contract for 2016 except for Crawford. Ladouceur probably could've been in Tier 1 but he does cost about $1.2 million on the cap. If times got tough there's always the chance that Dallas could cut him and bring back one of the young long snappers they've had in past camps. It's doubtful given Ladouceur's perfection at his craft.
The Kellen Moore Truthers out there not doubt feel he should be higher than this, but he could easily be cut if Dallas ends up adding Robert Griffin III or some other veteran free agent. I think they'd keep Moore regardless of what happens in the draft so that there's a veteran in the mix at camp.
Jack Crawford is an unrestricted free agent who I think Dallas will try to lock up before the market opens. His versatility as an inside/outside lineman is attractive and fills a gap created by the likely departure of Jeremy Mincey. He also has not had enough exposure during his Dallas tenure that he or his agent would expect much success in free agency, meaning they'll likely jump at whatever Dallas offers.
Speaking of defensive tackles, McClain and Whaley are both injury-plagued guys that Dallas has been footing the medical bills for for at least a couple of years. There's no real cap benefit to cutting either, so I think Dallas will continue to hope in getting return on their investment and bring them back to compete. McClain has shown he can be a factor when healthy and could wind up replacing Nick Hayden if things finally go well for him physically.
The rest of the players are young prospects who should get to camp but do run the risk, like any depth chart bottom dwellers, of being squeezed out by other signings or draft picks. I'm fully prepared for any of them to be released but not based on current circumstances.
TIER 4 - The 50/50 Club
Players: James Hanna, Ronald Leary, Greg Hardy, Nick Hayden, Rolando McClain, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Jeff Heath
Analysis: This is where things get interesting. I could probably do an entire article on just Hardy or Carr or Claiborne, among a few others. We'll try and cover as much ground as we can here.
Hardy is a very unique case. He's made a ton of money the last two seasons from his incentive-heavy deal with Dallas and the franchise tag from Carolina in 2014. Dallas has already eaten the public outcry from signing and keeping Hardy during his personal problems. With Hardy coming off a down year and having already earned massive paydays, there's a chance Dallas could secure him with a modest deal. He's still just 28-years-old and flashed his dominance at points during the year. It will all come down to how much Dallas wants to deal with the headaches and whatever issues Hardy poses in the locker room, and only they really know what their breaking point is.
It's unfortunate that Claiborne's free agency coincides with the Carr situation, because that is hurting Dallas' leverage in dealing with both of them. Dallas can free up about $6 million by cutting Carr outright and $9 million if they spread the hit over two years. His camp refused to discuss a salary reduction last year but his market value would be even lower now. Ideally you would just release him and upgrade the position with someone who is a better fit for the scheme, but that's where Claiborne's potential departure creates issues.
With his rookie deal now expired, Claiborne will be an unrestricted free agent. As a former sixth-overall pick he hasn't been underpaid, making over $16 million during his first four years. It's unlikely that Claiborne could even get that kind of money in free agency now despite being just 26-year-old (as of Feb 7th), given his injury issues and lack of performance. How much does Claiborne want to remain in Dallas? How much do the Cowboys feel he could still contribute? These will determine if they even discuss a new deal, and perhaps this will ultimately decide Carr's fate as well.
Rolando McClain is the last of the major question marks. He really turned it on toward the end of the season and will still be in his prime at 27-years-old entering free agency. McClain has proven to be a game-changer when he's motivated, but that is the eternal rub when it comes to him. How much stock can you really put in what McClain did during a contract year given his history of retirements and off-and-on performance? Dallas could look to bring him back on another one-year, incentive-laden deal but I doubt they'll go beyond that. McClain didn't attract any flies in free agency last year so perhaps he'll take whatever he can get.
Ronald Leary and Jeff Heath are both Restricted Free Agents who were previously undrafted. Dallas would likely be able to secure Leary with the $2 million (projected) second-round pick tender, making him a strong backup at a reasonable price. The question there, which I plan to write more about soon, if whether or not they really want to cost Leary his shot at a starting job and bigger payday elsewhere. Heath they could probably give the $1.5 million original pick tender to if they really value his work on special teams, but they'll likely just let him test the market and bring him back for even cheaper if at all.
Nick Hayden will again be an unrestricted free agent and I hope that they finally look for an upgrade. I've never understood why they like Hayden so much. He's a 4-3 tackle who can't rush the passer and doesn't consistently stop run. I get he's probably a nice locker room guy but you could do much, much better and need to given the state of the defensive line. I really hope they find a difference-maker this offseason who can free up Tyrone Crawford to be more of a disruptive presence.
James Hanna will also be a free agent and probably has way more value to the Cowboys than anyone else. He is a far better blocker than Gavin Escobar and might even be able to play out of the backfield with Tyler Clutts also being a free agent. Dallas might offer him a solid deal not only for what he can do now but also as insurance and leverage in 2017 for when they have to make a decision on Escobar's future.
TIER 5 - The Unlikely
Players: Matt Cassel, Lance Dunbar, Robert Turbin, Tyler Clutts, Charles Brown, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Jeremy Mincey, Kyle Wilber, Josh Thomas, Danny McCray
Analysis: Matt Cassel is a free agent and I don't think any of us will be disappointed to see him go. I'm really surprised that he couldn't do more with what he had to work with, especially given the uptick in play we saw from Kellen Moore. Cassel had clear confidence issues on the field and that completely destroys any value he had as a veteran presence.
Lance Dunbar was poised to have a breakout year after his first few games but ultimate just broke, landing on Injured Reserve for yet another season. He is now 26 and, despite the clear talent, has shown no ability to stay on the field. Dallas could bring him back for a minimal deal but I imagine they will look to younger plays at the position with the shortest shelf life. Robert Turbin, also 26 and a free agent, seems unlikely to return.
Dallas tried to find a better fullback than Tyler Clutts last year, signing Jed Collins and Ray Agnew III before they ever brought Clutts back. I imagine they will again search for an upgrade, or perhaps just use Hanna or another tight end in the role.
Bernadeau has starting experience and versatility as a guard or center. He could end up starting somewhere as a stop-gap given that he's 30-years-old. I think Dallas would be happy to bring him back as a backup but he'll want to see what his options are before re-signing. Charles Brown was brought in as a stop-gap himself but I'm sure Dallas will look to other options for their tackle depth chart.
Mincey has said he'd like to return to Dallas but I think they'll look to get younger. As already mentioned, Jack Crawford provides the same versatility and Dallas should be looking to make several upgrades to the defensive line this offseason. Another free agent is Kyle Wilber and he may end up signing with a 3-4 team to get back to the pass-rushing that originally got him into the NFL.
Lastly, defensive backs Josh Thomas and Danny McCray are both veteran free agents at the bottom of their depth charts. It is rare that those guys come back, and especially given the overhaul we expect the Cowboys to make in the secondary.
~ ~ ~
There are other players associated with the team right now; 11 guys signed to Futures contracts. Any of them could end up at training camp or are just as likely to be dumped to make room for other prospects who become available from waivers, undrafted free agents, and so on. There's really no point in getting into those guys given the state of flux.
The dominoes should begin falling sometime in early-mid February. We're sure to go even deeper on some of these topics, especially those top defensive free agents, in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned!
Zack Martin Got Paid, Is DeMarcus Lawrence Next?
Zack Martin's new contract became official last week as the four-time All-Pro received the long-term deal he's been looking for. Per Todd Archer, his rookie fifth year option now turns into a seven-year deal for $93.41-million dollars with $40-million guaranteed (42.8%), including a $20-million dollar signing bonus.
The total deal for All-Pro right guard Zack Martin is seven years for $93.41 million and includes a $20 million signing bonus, according to a source. As Adam Schefter reported, the guaranteed money is $40 million. The Cowboys created around $3 million... https://t.co/q8ovYSiQRg
The Dallas Cowboys and Martin's representatives worked all off-season to come up with a deal that would make Zack the highest paid guard in the NFL going into his fifth season. And as much as anyone on the team, he deserves it.
He's started every game in his four-year career. He's 28 years old and this contract locks him up through his prime.
With Martin's deal done, the Dallas Cowboys front office can now turn its attention to the next wave of players that will be ready for big-time contracts.
Let's look at who that is and what they could demand.
KD Drummond from the Cowboys Wire on USA Today had a great piece outlining what this deal means for the 2018 and 2019 salary caps moving forward. Per his math, for 2018, this deal gives the Dallas Cowboys an extra $3 million this year, leaving their cap space at a little more than $14 million.
For 2019, the Dallas Cowboys will have a projected $50-million dollars in cap space. Cap Projections courtesy of OverTheCap.com. $50 million in 2019 is far from the cap hell that everyone wants to tell you about.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
Let's start this discussion by saying that the Dallas Cowboys don't have to do a single thing with DeMarcus Lawrence's contract to help them on the salary cap. His cap figure is locked in at $17 million for 2018 and as noted above, the Cowboys have a little more than $14 million in space.
Zack Martin was arguably the biggest offseason priority in 2018. The other player who could make that argument was Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence, who the team placed their franchise tag on this off-season.
With the franchise tag in place, Lawrence wasn't allowed to hit free agency, which would have definitely led to a bidding war for the All-Pro pass rusher's services.
The deadline to convert the franchise tag to a long-term deal is about a month away, which gives the Dallas Cowboys front office plenty of time to get a deal done with Lawrence.
If the Dallas Cowboys were to get an extension done, with some creative structuring of the contract they could cut his salary cap figure. If the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on him again during the 2019 offseason, which is a real possibility, his guaranteed contract would be $20.4 million.
Let's look at Olivier Vernon's deal as a template for what DeMarcus Lawrence could get through a contract extension:
- In 2016, Vernon signed with the New York Giants in free agency a five-year, $85-million contract with $40-million guaranteed (47.1%) and a $20-million signing bonus.
- His year one cap figure was $13 million. A $1.75-million base salary, $7 million as a roster bonus, and $4 million as part of his prorated signing bonus that was spread out over the life of the contract.
Vernon had only one season with more than 10 sacks when he had 11.5 in his second year as a pro, but was consistently healthy. DeMarcus Lawrence had an elite season in 2017, but has had injury struggles throughout his career. 2017 was the first time he'd started all 16 games.
If you go to OverTheCap.com and look at the guaranteed portions of contracts for the top earning 4-3 defensive ends, you'll see that Jacksonville Jaguars DE Calais Campbell and the Cleveland Browns' Myles Garrett are the only players that come close. Their guaranteed money is at or just over $30-million dollars.
Vernon's deal was an above market value contract at the time, but could be the range that Lawrence and his representatives are looking at to get Tank paid.
Through the franchise tag alone, we're talking about a minimum of $37.4-million guaranteed that could go to Lawrence over the next two years. That would be just under Vernon's guaranteed numbers, and though Vernon's contract was above market value, that is probably where Lawrence's deal will have to start.
You can thank the New York Giants for paying Vernon above market value, which is probably leading to some of the contract negotiation difficulties between the Dallas Cowboys and Lawrence's representatives.
With all of that said, here's what I'd estimate Lawrence's deal to look like if it were to get signed before July 16th, when franchise tags become official for the 2018 season.
5 years for $90 million, $18 million per year, with $44-million guaranteed, and a $24-million signing bonus.
That would make him the highest paid 4-3 defensive end in NFL history, and if 2017 is any sign of future production, he's well worth it.
That may seem like a rich contract, but considering that Zack Martin just got $40-million guaranteed to play a position that is not nearly as valued as EDGE, it makes sense that Lawrence would get more.
The Dallas Cowboys may let him play this season on the franchise tag, but that would mean they will probably have to use it again next year to try to get a long-term deal negotiated with him in the 2019 off-season.
The sooner they get a deal done with Tank, the better as his play will only drive his contract up.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
Dak Prescott is headed for a big payday. Remember, before the final eight games of the 2017 season, Prescott had led the Cowboys to an 18-6 record over his first 24 games. His 22-10 record, which includes the offense's late season meltdown, is still pretty impressive during a quarterback's first two years in the NFL.
Only one quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL Merger had more wins in their first two seasons than Dak Prescott's 22: Russell Wilson. And we know the kind of defense the Seattle Seahawks were working with at the time.
Dak Prescott had a terrible second half of 2017, as did the rest of the offense, but don't let that cloud your judgment of what kind of player he is. Remember, in his rookie season he had the third highest passer rating behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan at 104.9.
Over the first eight games of 2017, his passer rating was 97.9 and he had a 16:4 touchdown to interception ratio. That includes the 68.8 passer rating in Denver when the entire team fell flat in the week two destruction at the hands of the Broncos.
He's a good quarterback and in 2018 he'll assuage all your concerns. Here's what I had to say about Dak Prescott's 2018 season.
Looking to the 2019 season, the time when 2016 rookies can begin negotiating contract extensions, it's likely Dak Prescott will get some big money to make him the Cowboys quarterback for the next 10 years.
There's no telling how rich the deal will be at this point, but we can guess that it will be somewhere between Derek Carr's $125 million (32% guaranteed) and Matt Ryan's $150 million total value (63% guaranteed).
Year three for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys will be huge to determine just where that contract should fit. Best case scenario for the Cowboys is that Prescott plays lights out en route to a deep playoff run and they reward him with a very rich contract.
If 2018 creates more questions, then a 2020 franchise tag could be in Prescott's future.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
With approximately $14 million in space this year and $50 million available to them in the 2019 salary cap, the Dallas Cowboys have the financial flexibility to hand out some long-term deals to some of their homegrown players.
As we know, this is the Dallas Cowboys' standard operating procedure: Draft well and then pay those draftees who earn a second contract. DeMarcus Lawrence and Dak Prescott have earned that second contract. The only question is, when will they get signed?
Dak Prescott’s Next Contract Looms Over Cowboys’ Financial Future
Even though his rookie contract goes through 2019, Quarterback Dak Prescott's next deal is already one of the key issues facing the Dallas Cowboys. Preparing for that second contract, which could highly expensive, is critical as the team deals with the rest of the roster and prepares for the future.
As a fourth-round pick Prescott's rookie deal is delightfully cheap. He counts just $726k and $816k against the salary cap over the next two seasons. You could hardly ask for better from a guy whose already been to a Pro Bowl.
But this financial grace period has a rapidly approaching end date. Dallas will soon have to pay Dak the standard for NFL quarterbacks, and the difference is staggering.
Consider what Jimmy Garoppolo just got from the 49ers; $137.5 million over five years. That's an average of $27.5 million per season.
And think about this; while Garoppolo may look like the second coming right now, he still hasn't accomplished what Dak Prescott already has.
Prescott has taken his team to the playoffs. He's gone to the Pro Bowl. His career passer rating puts him in the Top 10, between Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, on the NFL's all-time list.
Yes, last year was a step backward. But if Dak gets back to rookie form, and there's plenty of reason to think he will, then he will be able to use Garoppolo's deal as the floor in negotiations.
The scary reality here is that the Cowboys will no sooner get out from under Tony Romo's big contract then they probably have to get into a new one with Prescott. The last Romo's dead money, $8.9 million, finally drops off after 2018.
We know how Romo's cap hits, both while still playing and even after his release, have limited the Cowboys in free agency. That is an unnerving prospect for the future once Dak Prescott gets his next deal.
That's why you see the Cowboys eating all of Dez Bryant's dead money now. That's why they're potentially relying on so many recent draft picks like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Connor Williams and Michael Gallup to take on big roles for the next 3-4 years at their inexpensive rookie salaries.
That's why Cole Beasley (2019 free agent) probably won't be back next season, or why Sean Lee ($7 million cap relief) could easily be a cap casualty next year.
Clearly, Prescott's next contract hangs over everything.
Of course, nothing is certain. Prescott's sophomore slump may devolve into something more, and the conversation could quickly change.
But Dak doesn't have to be better than ever to earn the big money. He only has to get back to his rookie form; just do what he's already done.
With the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott hopefully back to their 2016 form and availability, Prescott should have the cushion to be the kind of QB that he was in that 13-3 season. And if he can get the Cowboys one step closer in the playoffs, such as an NFC Championship Game appearance, then Dallas will have no choice but to commit long-term.
While what the Niners gave Jimmy Garoppolo could be considered asinine for the lack of actual accomplishment so far, that doesn't matter in terms of market value. The bar has been raised, and Dak won't have to do much to clear it.
You know that Jerry and Stephen Jones see this as well as anybody, and every move the Cowboys make now is done with Dak's future deal in mind. That's the reality for any NFL team; dealing with the imbalance in QB compensation compared to the rest of the league.
Even if it's still two years away, they have to prepare for it as if it's guaranteed. Given what other QBs like Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Matt Stafford are making right now, Dak doesn't have to accomplish much more to make it happen.
Jimmy Johnson Could Be Next Cowboys Ring of Honor Inductee
According to reports, former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Jimmy Johnson may finally be joining the team's Ring of Honor.
Clarence Hill of the Star-Telegram reported this morning, per a source, that Johnson could be among the next group of inductees to the franchise's version of the Hall of Fame.
The other potential candidates mentioned were former scouting guru Gil Brandt from the Tom Landry era and Tight End Jay Novacek, who won three Super Bowls in Dallas in the 1990s.
Novacek would join Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Charles Haley, and Darren Woodson as Ring of Honor members acquired during Jimmy Johnson's brief but historic run as Cowboys coach.
It is that heavy presence of Johnson's players in the Ring, not to mention the three championships that crew won from 1992-1995, that has long merited Jimmy's inclusion in the Cowboys' most exclusive club.
Jimmy was only personally on had for two of three titles, but even that ties him with Tom Landry for Super Bowl wins in Cowboys history. And as many would argue, that 1995 championship team was still running on what Johnson put together.
Jimmy's place among the Cowboys' greatest contributors is irrefutable. But whether he'd ever get into the Ring of Honor has always been questioned due to his contentious breakup with team Owner and General Manager Jerry Jones.
Johnson left the Cowboys after the 1993 championship season as he and Jones could no longer have a working relationship. Jerry's bitterness over the credit that Jimmy got for building the 90s dynasty, and Jimmy's refusal to pass any of that along to his Jones, led to Johnson's resignation as egos drove a wedge between friends.
Time appears to have healed the wounds, for the most part. As pictured above, Jimmy was in attendance for Jerry's 2017 Hall of Fame induction and public comments between them have become far more cordial in recent years.
At ages 75 and 74, respectively, Jerry and Jimmy should close this book while they still can. There is no better way to do than by Johnson taking his rightful place in the Ring of Honor.
Not only will that move bring a resolution to their story, but it will also help Jimmy in his pursuit of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to be recognized on the team level.
Jimmy Johnson belongs with Troy, Emmitt, Playmaker, and the rest who he brought together. He was responsible for the most successful era of Dallas Cowboys football in the team's history. He also provided the catchphrase that has endured for almost 30 years now, "how 'bout 'dem Cowboys?"
You can't tell the story of the Dallas Cowboys without Jimmy Johnson. It's time to give his chapter a happy ending.
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