We're getting close to the time that teams start releasing players for performance and/or salary cap reasons. The business usually doesn't pick up until mid-late February but there is precedent for transactions happening almost immediately after the Super Bowl. I thought it was a good time to look over the Cowboys roster and see just who might be in the crosshairs.
Today we're going to organize the team into job security tiers. There will be a variety of factors; age, legacy, contract, performance, positional need, off-field issues, and others that will impact each player in different ways. Some will be obvious and others may be a little controversial. I hope you'll share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
So. without further ado…
TIER 1 – The Untouchables
Players: Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La'el Collins, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Orlando Scandrick, Byron Jones, Dan Bailey, Chris Jones
Analysis: Like I said, some things will be obvious. Witten will only stop being a Cowboy when he retires. The top three offensive linemen are all fixtures. Collins, Lawrence, Gregory, and Byron Jones are the top young prospects expected to part of the team's future. Sean Lee finally had a healthy season, was Pro Bowl alternate, and is back as your premiere defensive player. Bailey is a god among men and Chris Jones emerged as one of the top punters in the league last year.
Dez and Tyrone Crawford are in the same boat; players coming off down years but with too much financial investment to even consider releasing them. Beasley doesn't have the status of those two but is in a similar situation. He just got a new deal last offseason and wouldn't provide any cap relief if released. His value will likely increase with Romo's return and he's still useful as a backup punt returner.
Speaking of Tony, you probably knew this already but there's just no way you can cut him right now due to the salary cap. Releasing Romo now would increase his cap hit, already at $20 million, up to $31 million. Next year is the first point when you can even consider it as the dead money would finally result in about $5 million in cap relief and more if split over two years (as a post-June cut).
This may seem like a reach for Escobar but he's a former second-round pick entering the final year of his rookie deal. Given that James Hanna is a free agent it's hard to see a way that Dallas would part ways now. If anything, maybe they'd try to trade him to a team that needs more of a receiving option and potential starter. He's still young and could have value to a team that scouted him highly in 2013. That said, I just don't see how he's not back next year.
Finally, let's look at Scandrick. Dallas would only save about $2 million by releasing the 29-year-old (as of February 10th). Even though he's coming off a major knee injury, Scandrick is still your top corner and that $2 million is a pittance compared to what he's worth with a successful rehab and return. When you consider the uncertainty throughout the secondary with Morris Claiborne's free agency, Brandon Carr's potential release, and Byron Jones perhaps moving to safety, there is just far potential for disaster without Scandrick than that $2 million is worth.
Tier 2 – The Slightly Touchables
Players: Jameil Showers, Darren McFadden, Terrance Williams, Brice Butler, Devin Street, Lucky Whitehead, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim, Doug Free, Chaz Green, Ryan Russell, David Irving, Anthony Hitchens, Andrew Gachkar, Damien Wilson, Terrance Mitchell, Deji Olatoye, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox
Analysis: This list probably seems like a bit of a hodgepodge, but remember that these rankings are about players' likelihood to be released and/or not re-signed. Also, remember that we're only talking who will makes it to the start of training camp and not who will be on the 2016 Week One roster. That's how you can have a guy like Showers on the same list as McFadden. I've got Showers here because he's under contract and makes for a nice camp body and scout team player when preparing for mobile quarterbacks.
If anything changes for McFadden it will likely be getting a raise after his big year. The only reason he's not an “Untouchable” is the potential that Dallas brings in a future stud through the draft or a big free agent signing such as Lamar Miller. McFadden has almost no guaranteed money on his deal and would provide $2 million in cap relief if released. It's highly unlikely given his value but can't be completely dismissed in the cold business of NFL cap management.
I know it seems like I listed every wide receiver we have but there's a reason for that. All of these guys are under contract and cheap, and you could really extend this logic to Swaim at tight end. There's really no reason to cut them now as all will make the training camp competition even stronger. Even Street, who struggled a lot last year, is still just a third-year player. Whitehead's value is increased by being incumbent return specialist and that he started to find a niche role in the offense toward to the end of the year.
It may seem unfair to even put Terrance Williams on this list, and not up there with Escobar in Tier 1, but that's all about what else is going on at the position. If Dallas drafts a receiver in the early rounds, perhaps even at fourth overall, then they may decide to cut Williams and let him try and find work elsewhere. Butler's emergence late last season puts that on the table.
At offensive tackle, Doug Free could be released for $2.5 million cap relief but then you get into the same question as we discussed with Orlando Scandrick; is replacing him really worth the money? Chaz Green's injury last year did not give Dallas a chance to really look at him and feel confident that he could start in 2016. In fact, there's talk he may wind up at guard. Also, it's hard to see Dallas spending another high pick at offensive line given all they've invested there already and other needs. I think Dallas will ride with Free for one more year and hope Green sticks as the swing tackle.
The defensive linemen, linebackers, and cornerbacks listed are all in the same situation; young backups with cap-friendly deals who have no real reason for release. Some have proposed that Dallas might draft a linebacker high this year but that really doesn't hurt Hitchens, Gachkar, or Wilson. They would still be key backups and then there's the possibility that Rolando McClain won't return. Even if Dallas adds a new starter in the draft, another opening may still be there in the starting lineup. Gachkar is a little rich at $1.9 million this year and $1.3 saved if released, but he may be the best of the bunch and is a special teams leader.
Lastly we get to the much-maligned starting safeties. Let's set the stage; both are entering the final years of their contracts. Church is due to make $3.25 million and would save $2.75 million if released. Wilcox is only due about $850k on the final year of his rookie deal. Both have been highly criticized after last season, for good reason, and many would like to wish them well in their future endeavors.
Byron Jones plays a huge part in what Dallas chooses to do at safety. Do they make him a full-time safety, where his athleticism makes him an ideal “center field” coverage man and allow the other safety to play more down in the box? If so, that really increases Church's value and potential. Dallas could not only hope for improved safety play by having guys in more ideal roles but then utilize Wilcox as a versatile backup and special teams ace, upgrading their depth over restricted free agent Jeff Heath. This is seems a likely outcome.
However, there's also the potential that Dallas elects to use Jones at cornerback in light of the holes there. His size and athleticism are suited to covering the bigger wide receivers of the modern era. If they go this route than Dallas may have to consider releasing Church so they can spend some of that money on the upgrades. Keep in mind, however, that 37 safeties in the NFL make more money per year than Church. He makes just a third of what guys like Eric Berry and Earl Thomas are bringing in. That's attractive value for any team.
The symbiotic nature of corners and safeties, which is greatly increased by Jones' potential to land at either spot, also means ripples at corner could still affect Church's security. If Dallas figures out a way to negotiate a lower salary with Brandon Carr, for example, does that mean Church gets cut for cap money? There are just so many ways it could go. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Dallas will look to retain as much talent as possible so that they can add to the base rather than create new holes to fill.
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That's it for today. Tomorrow we'll hit the rest of the roster and dive deep into some of the biggest hot-button topics such as Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Lance Dunbar, and Carr and Claiborne's futures. Stay tuned!
(Part 2 is now published. Click HERE to read!)