With cap issues looming in 2022, Dallas Cowboys need to win now

FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys (5-1) have a comfortable lead in the NFC East, look like a contender in the conference and a possibility to make the franchise’s first Super Bowl since 1995.

A word to the wise: Enjoy this run because it could be difficult to replicate beyond 2021.

There is already talk about offensive coordinator Kellen Moore becoming a head coach in 2022, especially when former quarterback Tony Romo is calling Cowboys’ games for CBS. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn could get back into the head coaching mix considering how he has retooled the Dallas defense. And there are a number of assistants who could theoretically move to bigger spots, like secondary coach/passing game coordinator Joe Whitt.

But the biggest issue the Cowboys will face is related to the salary cap.

Next year’s cap is set to be $208 million. At present, the Cowboys can carry over roughly $3.5 million of 2021 cap space to their 2022 cap, bumping their figure to $211.5 million.

According to Roster Management System, the Cowboys' cap value next year is already $217.7 million with 43 players under contract. They will also have at least $6.86 million in dead money, accounting for players no longer on the roster. The top 10 salary-cap figures on the Cowboys’ roster for next year total, $171.96 million, led by quarterback Dak Prescott's $34.45 million cap number.

Nothing is impossible when it comes to the cap with restructures, renegotiations and releases, but all three options do not provide the Cowboys an absolute "Get Out of Jail Free" card.

“That’s going to be a challenge for us to figure out how we manage the cap,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “It was always going to be hard to speculate what the cap’s going to be until we got through a full season of normal capacities or just normalcy away from the pandemic. We’ll start to have a better feel going forward how we manage and project out the salary cap.”

Restructuring Prescott’s contract will open the most space, perhaps as much as $15 million. That is the simplest decision for the Cowboys and why they signed him to a six-year deal that voids to four last March.

They would like to avoid restructuring the contracts of running back Ezekiel Elliott, guard Zack Martin and offensive tackle Tyron Smith because of a combination of age, injury and future salary-cap ramifications.

Offensive tackle La’el Collins’ five-game suspension cost him a $6.48 million guarantee of his $10 million base salary in 2022. With how well Terence Steele has performed in his absence -- at a much lower cost -- the Cowboys could opt to move on from Collins after this season to save some room, either $1.3 million as a straight cut or $10 million as a post-June 1 release.

By releasing wide receiver Amari Cooper and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys can open up at least $24 million in cap room.

Then the question becomes: How do the Cowboys replace Cooper and Lawrence and would they be better without them and Collins?

Keeping their own free agents is always a Cowboys' priority.

At wide receiver, they would keep Michael Gallup under this scenario, but what happens with Cedrick Wilson, whose payday should rise based on his productivity (14 catches, 168 yards, 2 TDs) in Gallup’s absence due to a calf strain?

At defensive end, they would keep Randy Gregory, who has four sacks and is playing his best football. Maybe the Cowboys’ patience with the 2015 second-round pick through multiple suspensions that cost him 54 games would pay off in negotiations. What if it doesn’t? Placing the franchise or transition tag on him would have to be a possibility.

Now look at the remainder of the starters or regulars scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency in 2022 who play major roles on offense, defense or special teams.

Tight end Dalton Schultz’s production the past two seasons (94 catches, seven TDs in 2020-21 combined) has him poised to cash in. If the New England Patriots paid Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry more than $12 million per year, then Schultz will be in that neighborhood. Can the Cowboys afford that? If so, they likely would have to do something with Blake Jarwin, who's under contract through 2023.

The Cowboys declined to pick up linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option for 2022, which will make him a free agent. But the coaches have liked his level of play so far, credited with 29 tackles and two tackles for loss. Do they give Jabril Cox, a fourth-rounder this year, a larger role?

Connor Williams has started all but three games at left guard since 2018. Offensive linemen are difficult to find and despite his foibles -- seven accepted penalties -- another team would be able to pay him more than the Cowboys can. Plus, the Cowboys can turn to Connor McGovern as a starter if needed.

This year, the Cowboys were able to hit on their economical free-agent signings like linebacker Keanu Neal, safeties Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker, and defensive ends Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban. Beyond whether the Cowboys should bring any of them back in 2022, can they? And if they don’t, can they be as successful in 2022 with short-term, cheaper free-agent signings again?

Finding answers in late October for issues that come due next March is difficult, but Jones and his staff take a bigger picture view of the salary cap and the future.

Jones acknowledged the upcoming challenge, but it will not force the Cowboys into an all-in mode for next week’s trade deadline.

“We always manage not only for the moment but for the long term,” Jones said. “We would never just say, ‘Hey we’re all in for one season,’ especially with this young football team.”