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How the Cowboys could create more than $50 million in 2017 salary-cap space

FRISCO, Texas – The dire reports happen every year: The Dallas Cowboys are in salary-cap hell and won’t be able to do anything in free agency.

Yet somehow they get under the cap and sign a free agent or three.

It’s not necessarily “fake news,” but it is “incomplete news.”

The Cowboys are anywhere from $11 million to $13 million over the projected 2017 salary cap. Gulp.

With an email that will take quicker to read than this sentence, the Cowboys will go from over the cap to under the cap.

Through the magical world of contract restructuring and a release or two, the Cowboys can go from being well over the cap to more than $40 million under the cap, and that does not include doing anything with Tony Romo.

Before you let yourself get carried away about the highest of high-end free agents, you should know the Cowboys won’t create that much room. The Cowboys do not believe free agency is an effective way to build a roster. Over the last few years, they have used it as a supplemental tool, getting players at their prices while others pay big – too big, in the mind of the Cowboys – to get better.

A cynic will say the Cowboys operate this way because they always have to restructure contracts and have done a poor job planning. Maybe, but having cap room doesn’t solve all of the problems.

Let’s not digress.

The point of this column is to point out how easily (and likely) the Cowboys can get under the cap and create room to sign players.

The first two moves are the easiest: Restructure the deals of Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.

Frederick’s deal, which was signed in August, was designed in a way to be restructured. He has a cap figure of $14.871 million. A simple restructuring can gain the Cowboys a little more than $10 million in room. With Smith, the Cowboys can create roughly $7 million in room.

That puts the Cowboys under the cap with $17 million in savings.

(And just to clear this up: The Cowboys rarely create the maximum available to them on restructured deals.)

Is there a worry about pushing out larger cap figures on Smith and Frederick? Sure, but Smith doesn’t turn 27 until December; Frederick turns 26 in March. Age matters.

Sean Lee hit on his escalator by playing in more than 80 percent of the snaps in 2016, which will take his base salary from $7 million to $9 million. As a result his cap figure stands at $12.45 million. A simple restructure with Lee would save the Cowboys a little more than $5 million.

What about age? Lee turns 31 in July. In the salary-cap world there is no such thing as black and white. It’s always shades of gray.

(We’re up to $22 million in savings).

Jason Witten has the largest salary-cap figure in the league for a tight end at $12.262 million. He is entering the final year of his deal and will turn 35 in May. It would make sense for the Cowboys to sign Witten to a new multi-year deal, knowing he might not play the full length, and that could create around $4 million in space.

(We’re now up to $26 million in savings).

Now let’s talk about Romo’s deal and how that could affect what the Cowboys do with the contracts of Tyrone Crawford and Dez Bryant.

If the Cowboys release or trade Romo, he will count $19.6 million against the cap in 2017, saving them $5.1 million.

(We’re now over $30 million in savings.)

If the Cowboys designate Romo a June 1 release, they will save $14 million against the cap in 2017. Instead of counting $19.6 million, Romo will count $10.7 million against the 2017 cap and $8.9 million against the 2018 cap. The one caveat is the Cowboys don't get the cap credit until June 2, so that won't help them land free agents in March. It would, however, give them room to sign their draft picks and enough room to deal with in-season issues (injuries or signings) as well as carry over money to the 2018 cap.

Is it better to have Romo’s dead money count against the cap in 2017 and ’18 or restructure the contracts of Crawford and Bryant and add to their salary-cap figures on the back end of their deals? My argument would be to spread the Romo hit over two years and don’t touch the contracts of Crawford and Bryant unless absolutely necessary. Crawford is coming off a second straight offseason in which he needed surgery, and Bryant has missed games the last two years with leg injuries.

If they want to redo Crawford and Bryant, while designating Romo a June 1 release, then you’re looking at $26 million more in savings. Instead of $40 million, you’re talking more than $50 million in savings, albeit with $14 million coming to them in June.

If you want to get greedy then the Cowboys could release Doug Free, giving them $5 million in cap relief, and Alfred Morris, giving them another $1.7 million in room.

(We’re up to $56 million in savings with the June caveat.)

Lost in all of this talk of releases, however, is you would like to have a replacement ready to go before you make those moves. The Cowboys don’t have a ready-made replacement for Free at right tackle. Chaz Green hasn’t shown he can stay healthy. With Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar set to be free agents, they don’t have a veteran option behind Ezekiel Elliott.

The salary cap is a shell game.

The Cowboys know how to manage it.

The “cap hell” myth won’t be the reason why they don’t sign your favorite free agent.