IRVING, Texas – Attempting to calculate how much a room a team has or does not have against the 2016 salary cap is like attempting to figure out the weather.
Despite the hard figures, cap space is a living, breathing thing.
With the Dallas Cowboys coming off a 4-12 season and Jerry Jones always in a win-now mode, the dreams of adding players such as Olivier Vernon, Josh Norman and Eric Berry run through the minds of Cowboys fans everywhere -- even if those players are not likely to hit the market.
Plus, spending big in free agency has hardly proven to be worth it to the Cowboys or other teams.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones knows that. Remember this quote from the NFL scouting combine last year?
“Overpaying free-agent wise has not borne out,” Jones said at the time. “Not just for us, but around the league in general. When you go out and overpay in free agency, those usually don’t have good endings.”
Despite the warnings, there always seems to be an interest in cap space and signing big-name players every year.
So let’s play the game for a moment.
The 2016 salary cap has not yet been set but it could be around $153.3 million. According to the NFL, the Cowboys' top 51 contracts account for $144.06 million. The Cowboys figure to carry over $4.5 million in space from 2015 once they are done paying out bonuses and incentives earned by their players.
That would give the Cowboys $13.74 million in cap room.
That’s a fair amount but puts them in the bottom third of the league. But it also does not account for the restricted free-agent tenders they would give to Ronald Leary, Jeff Heath or the team’s upcoming draft picks.
So what can the Cowboys do to create more room? Well, plenty and it would not be that difficult. Most importantly, it would not involve reworking Tony Romo’s contract.
In years past the Cowboys had to restructure contracts just to get under the salary cap by the time the league year started. It was a dangerous way of doing business because it affected future caps. This year the Cowboys don’t have to do such a thing because they have handled their cap smartly over the last few years.
Romo has a cap figure of $20.835 million. The Cowboys don’t want to touch that contract with Romo turning 36 in April. They don’t want to add salary-cap proration to his deal unless they are forced to do so.
The Cowboys signed Dez Bryant to a five-year, $70 million deal last July that included $45 million guaranteed. He has a $13-million cap figure that they could easily lower, but with him coming off foot surgery, it is better to get room from another deal if possible.
That leads us to Tyron Smith and Tyrone Crawford.
Smith has a $14 million cap figure, but they can create roughly $7 million in space by knocking his $10 million base salary to $1 million and turning the rest into a signing bonus. Why do the Cowboys feel better doing that with Smith than, say, Romo? It's because Smith is just 25 years old.
Crawford signed a five-year extension worth $45 million early last season. He is set to count $8.75 million against the cap. The Cowboys can create about $4.6 million in room by reworking his contract. When he signed the deal last season it was set up to be restructured to give the Cowboys room.
Then there’s Brandon Carr’s contract. He is in the final year of his deal, although there is a voidable year remaining in 2017. While the easy thing to say is that the Cowboys should cut Carr, you have to remember they don’t have a replacement just yet.
Carr is set to count $13.817 million against the cap with a $9.1-million base salary. The Cowboys could gain some space by giving him a completely new deal. If they choose to cut Carr, then they could gain either $6.38 million in space or $9.1 million in room, depending if they designated him a post-June 1 cut. By going the June 1 route, the Cowboys would have $2.717 million against the cap in dead money in 2017.
They would also be prevented from gaining that space until June 1.
So with three quick swipes of the pen, the Cowboys can gain around anywhere from $18-21 million in extra cap space. Add that to the roughly $13.74 million they will have before those moves and the Cowboys can be major free-agent players if they so choose.
But if there is one thing to remember about the salary cap it’s this: Nothing is that simple.
COWBOYS' TOP 10 CAP FIGURES, 2016
Tony Romo -- $20.835 million
Tyron Smith -- $14 million
Brandon Carr -- $13.817 million
Dez Bryant -- $13 million
Tyrone Crawford -- $8.75 million
Jason Witten -- $8.612 million
Orlando Scandrick -- $7.796 million
Sean Lee -- $5.95 million
Doug Free -- $5.5 million
Barry Church -- $4.75 million