Needing to free up cap space before the 2018 NFL free agent market opens next week, the Dallas Cowboys have a few different options available. One involves restructuring the contract veteran linebacker Sean Lee, but Dallas will need to give it some serious thought.
Some restructuring, such as what we'll likely see with Travis Frederick, is a no-brainer. The All-Pro center hasn't missed a game in five years with the club and turns just 27 this month. He is signed through 2023, when he'll be 32 years old, and figures to play out that full contract.
Sean Lee, certainly every bit as good a linebacker as Frederick is a center, has a different set of circumstances. The defensive leader will already be 32 as of July. He missed four games last year due to injury; a scary reminder of his health problems from past seasons.
Lee is set to count about $11 million against the Cowboys 2018 salary cap. With a restructuring, his base salary of $7 million could be whittled down to make at least $5 million in immediate cap space.
If this happens, Sean's final contract year in 2019 would become almost untouchable. As it stands, next year has about a $10 million cap hit and $3 million in guaranteed money. Freeing up money in 2018 turns it into guaranteed money in 2019, meaning Dallas would have little-to-no flexibility in cutting Lee next season.
Some may have no issue with that, assuming the Cowboys would have no reason to part with the captain of their defense. But if Lee were to have more injury issues in 2018, or if being 32 years old finally started to show up in his play, the Cowboys might want to have the option to part ways.
If Dallas does nothing with Lee's contract now, they could cut him in 2019 for about $7 million cap space. Every dollar they'd convert now lowers that number, and thus reduces their leverage.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys may have to forego future leverage for the present.
After placing the franchise tag on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence yesterday, the Cowboys lost about $17 million in cap space. They are down to almost nothing with free agency opening on March 14th.
There are other moves to make, such as we discussed with Travis Frederick. Dallas could also restructure Tyron Smith and Jason Witten, or makes some easy cuts with guys like James Hanna and Benson Mayowa.
And of course, there's also whatever they decide to do with Dez Bryant.
Ideally, the Cowboys would not touch Sean Lee's deal and keep their 2019 option open. But they will be certainly be tempted to restructure him given the potential relief, banking on two more great seasons on the defensive leader.
While Dez may present the toughest choice of 2018, the contracts of veterans like Lee and Witten aren't far behind. The Cowboys have to find the right balance between past, present, and future to make this offseason a success.