Why the Cowboys' contention window might not be wide open

The Cowboys could be faced with tough decisions on veterans like Amari Cooper who is set to make $20 million in 2022. LM Otero/AP Photo

FRISCO, Texas -- The displeasure in Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones' voice last week as he spoke on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas was clear.

Jones was disappointed and frustrated with the wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers because everything was seemingly lined up for the Cowboys: a home game, a healthy team, a confident defense, an offense that was No. 1 in the NFL in yards and points, a Super Bowl-winning head coach.

Jones wasn’t the only one disappointed and frustrated. Running back Ezekiel Elliott said the 2021 Cowboys’ team was the best he has been on. Quarterback Dak Prescott echoed those feelings.

There was not -- or maybe is not -- the feeling the Cowboys are building for a multiyear run and this was simply a price they had to pay on their way to playoff success in the future, like the 1991 Cowboys, who lost in the divisional round to the Detroit Lions and won three of the next four Super Bowls.

“In my opinion I don’t think the 'window' conversation applies as much in today’s NFL as it did in the '90s, just for the amount of movement that you have,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I remember the Chiefs, you work with the same players four, five, six years in a row.”

McCarthy said the 53-man roster will change by 20-25% each year. That figure might be low. The Cowboys have 21 players set to become unrestricted free agents in March and only two were not available for the playoff game.

Of those 21, most were key contributors -- a starter, top rotational player or special-teamer -- to a team that went 12-5, won the NFC East and, yes, lost a home playoff game.

The ability to keep the likes of tight end Dalton Schultz, defensive end Randy Gregory, receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, safety Jayron Kearse and Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger, who are among those 21, will be difficult.

The Cowboys face a challenging salary-cap situation. According to Roster Management, the Cowboys are projected $17.7 million over the 2022 cap. According to overthecap.com, they are $24 million over the 2022 cap.

Nothing is impossible when it comes to the salary cap. The Cowboys can create enough room to keep whomever they choose and make runs at big-time free agents, but that would leverage future cap space by restructuring contracts of players that have been redone multiple times already.

Prescott is without question the easiest restructure to do. It’s why the Cowboys signed him to a six-year deal that voids to four years. Prescott has a $34.45 million cap figure. By reworking Prescott’s deal, they can create up to $15 million in space.

The rest of the decisions are a bit murkier.

What to do with receiver Amari Cooper? He is set to make $20 million in 2022, which becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. They can create $16 million in space by cutting Cooper, having him count $6 million against the cap.

But are they -- and maybe more importantly Prescott -- better without Cooper?

The Cowboys have four receivers set for free agency: Gallup, who is scheduled to have surgery on his torn anterior cruciate ligament soon, Wilson, Noah Brown and Malik Turner. If the Cowboys walk away from Cooper, then they must have deals for Gallup or Wilson -- or both -- in place and look to the draft for receiver help.

The Cowboys are paying Cooper No. 1 receiver money, but in the interview with 105.3, Jones sounded like an owner who doesn’t believe the coaches are using him like a No. 1 receiver.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence has a $27 million cap figure. Cutting him would save the Cowboys $11 million, but are the Cowboys better without Lawrence? They might want more sacks with that contract, but he remains a difference-maker. Why not restructure Lawrence’s contract? It's certainly doable but not wise since he turns 30 in April and has been slowed by injuries.

Lawrence’s future is tied to the future of Gregory, who is set to be a free agent. Can the Cowboys afford Lawrence at $27 million against the cap and pay Gregory enough on a multiyear deal or on the franchise or transition tag? Seems dicey at best.

Elliott will be a Cowboy in 2022 and not a salary-cap casualty. Why? His $12.4 million salary is fully guaranteed. Could the Cowboys restructure his contract? Yes, and it could save them up to $9 million against the cap. But it could put them in a poor situation in 2023 when they could move on from him financially for the first time if he does not have a highly productive season whether because of health or poor play.

Then there are offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins. Could the Cowboys restructure all of their contracts? Yes. Should they? Probably not. Age, health and length of deals make that less than ideal.

Moving on from Smith and Collins, who had his $6.48 million guarantee voided because of his suspension in 2021, might make sense but only if there are replacements ready to go. What might make more sense is moving Collins to left guard for pending free agent Connor Williams and putting Terence Steele at right tackle. Smith has not played a full season since 2015, so finding his long-term replacement should at least be a draft priority in 2022.

There are other moves the Cowboys could make to find cap space -- cutting cornerbacks Anthony Brown or Jourdan Lewis, defensive end Tarell Basham, kicker Greg Zuerlein and tight end Blake Jarwin -- but those wouldn’t create significant room.

The biggest decisions come with the highest-paid players.

Once the Cowboys decide what to do there, they can figure out how many of the 21 free agents they can keep.