Cowboys will have to work around cap to add talent

Can Jerry Jones do anything to change Dez Bryant's mind about taking a pay cut? AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

FRISCO, Texas -- On Monday and Tuesday, Jason Garrett and his Dallas Cowboys coaching staff met with the players for an evaluation on what happened in 2017. On Wednesday, two assistant coaches, Wade Wilson and Joe Baker, were informed they would not be back, and another, Rich Bisaccia, was told he could leave.

Eventually, the Cowboys will turn their attention to improving the roster in 2018 and look to re-sign their own players or add others through free agency.

To do so, the Cowboys will have to figure out their salary-cap situation.

Based on a $176 million cap, ESPN Stats & Information projects the Cowboys to have nearly $11.3 million in space. That does not count the $8 million (give or take a couple hundred thousand) in cap room the Cowboys will carry over from 2017.

That $19.3 million in cap room looks awfully good for a team that will look to add pieces to a roster that finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs.

Well, don’t blink, because nearly all of it could be gone if the Cowboys give the franchise tag to defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who led the team with 14.5 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl. That projects to be around a cost of $17 million if the sides are not able to work out a long-term deal. It is reasonable to assume the Cowboys will put the second-round tender on David Irving, which projects to be about $3 million.

Those two moves alone swallow up Dallas' cap space, so what gives?

The Cowboys have a long history of restructuring contracts. Often it leads to bloated cap figures down the road, which played a role in the departure of DeMarcus Ware after the 2013 season. Tony Romo's cap figure got so unwieldy late in his career that the Cowboys had to designate him a post-June 1 cut last year, and he still counts $8.9 million against the cap in 2018.

The obvious candidates for restructuring are left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and linebacker Sean Lee.

In a perfect world, the Cowboys would not touch Smith’s contract. They restructured his deal in 2015, ’16 and ’17. With his back trouble and the injuries that forced him to miss three games in 2016 and most of four in 2017, it would be wise to let Smith play out the season with his $17.5 million cap figure.

By restructuring Frederick’s contract for a second consecutive year, the Cowboys can garner more than $7 million in cap space if they choose. They can gain another $3 million by reworking Lee’s contract, but that is something of a risk since Lee turns 32 in July and has had his own injury concerns.

The Cowboys could also look to the contracts of kicker Dan Bailey and tight end Jason Witten to create more room, but that won’t get them a lot of space.

So where else?

This is why Dez Bryant's future with the team is the biggest question of the offseason. The receiver is set to count $16.5 million against the cap. If the Cowboys cut him, they can create $8.5 million in room. If they designate him a post-June 1 cut, they can free up $12 million in room this year, but Bryant would be on the books for $4 million in 2019.

Given his production, Bryant would not be viewed as a candidate for a restructure, but he could be asked to take a pay cut, which could gain Dallas cap space. Bryant said late in the season he would not be willing to take less, but maybe Jerry Jones could work something out that could make the receiver happy and give the Cowboys a chance get some cap room.

All-Pro right guard Zack Martin is set to count $9.3 million in 2018 because of the fifth-year tender. If he were to sign a long-term deal, the Cowboys could free up $5 million or more depending on the structure of the contract. Martin said his desire is to stay with the Cowboys, and the expectation is that the two sides will talk sometime after the Pro Bowl. They did not get discussions on a deal going in earnest last year until training camp and never truly got close.

There is no doubt the 27-year-old will receive a contract that makes him the highest-paid guard in the NFL, but because of where the Cowboys are against the cap, Martin looks to have a bit more leverage in pursuit of a friendlier structure.

The Cowboys can gain space from cutting veterans such as Orlando Scandrick, James Hanna and Benson Mayowa, but they would also have to find replacements at cornerback, tight end and defensive end ready to play larger roles. Maybe they have those players on the roster, but the costs of Scandrick, Hanna and Mayowa are not very large.

The dreams of signing the big-money free agents are sure to come before the market opens in March.

Executive vice president Stephen Jones has consistently said he does not believe high-priced free agency is the way to go.

The Cowboys might not wade into that water this offseason, either, but they can create the salary-cap room necessary to get out of the kiddie pool.