INDIANAPOLIS -- Sometimes it’s what is not said that raises an eyebrow.
“It’s too early for me to address that yet,” Jones said from the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis on Monday. “I mean, we’re continuing to have conversations.”
If Cooper’s status were cemented, Jones would have been emphatic in support of the wide receiver, the way he was later in the interview session with a gaggle of reporters regarding running back Ezekiel Elliott.
“I want Zeke on my team,” Jones said. “You talk about playing through some injuries, some things that are hard -- I mean, he is a competitor. I think he’s a damn good running back, and I think he’s going to help us win this year. Obviously, his contract, his money is guaranteed. He’s going to be here, no question. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Elliott finished with 1,002 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 237 carries while playing most of the season with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament. He wore a cumbersome brace for most of the second half of the season but continued to play.
It could be just economics talking.
Elliott’s $12.4 million base salary for 2022 is already guaranteed. It would not make financial sense to move on from Elliott and there is almost no chance another team would want to trade for the running back.
Cooper’s $20 million base salary does not become fully guaranteed until the fifth day of the 2022 league year. The Cowboys designed the $100 million contract in a way in which they could get out of the deal for a relative pittance after two seasons. If they cut Cooper, he would count $6 million against the salary cap, not $22 million.
For a team that is projected more than $21 million over the cap, every dollar counts -- especially with so many unsigned key free agents such as defensive end Randy Gregory, tight end Dalton Schultz, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and safety Jayron Kearse.
What other salary cap-saving moves could be next? Restructuring quarterback Dak Prescott's deal could open up close to $15 million.
But if the Cowboys cut Cooper, they could face a lot of turnover at the receiver spot in 2022. CeeDee Lamb is set, but Michael Gallup (who tore an ACL late last season) and Cedrick Wilson are set to be free agents.
“A lot of things affect [Cooper’s status] in terms of obviously we’ve been so fortunate to have those three great receivers on our roster and obviously that’s hard to keep doing under a salary cap,” Jones said. “And certainly Ced did a really nice job for us and he’s up. So there’s some moving parts there that we’ll have to continue to massage as we move forward.”
One of those things that won't affect Cooper’s spot is his decision to not get vaccinated last year, according to Jones, even though it cost him two games that the Cowboys lost.
Cooper finished with 865 yards on 68 receptions with eight touchdowns in his 15 games. Good numbers but not No. 1 receiver numbers, which is what he is being paid. He had two 100-yard games in the first seven weeks and none in his last eight games. He had three games with two receptions and one with three.
The passing game production slipped as Cooper’s numbers slipped.
“I just think it’s an offensive philosophy, and when we had the players that we had, between [coordinator] Kellen [Moore] and Dak, there was a progression of where you threw the ball,” Jones said. “Depending on how the defense played you, it would point the ball to certain places. If they are going to double over here and they are going to double over the top over here, that is going to dictate that the ball goes here. So I think it more of a system deal. It wasn't a ‘We are not going to target Amari’ as much.”
If the system doesn’t lead to the best bang for the buck, then …
“We go through all that,” Jones said. “Not going to get into it individually. But yes, all that plays into how we invest.”