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Even with additional cap room, Dallas Cowboys face a space crunch

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Is Dak worth $40 million a year? Stephen A. weighs in (2:05)

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FRISCO, Texas -- When it comes to the 2021 NFL salary cap, every little bit helps the Dallas Cowboys.

With the NFL moving the salary cap floor from $175 million to $180 million, that extra space would help the Cowboys whether they use the franchise tag on quarterback Dak Prescott for a second straight year or sign the quarterback to a multiyear deal.

Even with the $5 million increase, the Cowboys would not have the room to fit the $37.7 million franchise tag figure, nor the likely first-year cap number on a new contract for Prescott. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys are projected to have $14.5 million in room, which includes the unused space the team carried over from the 2020 cap.

In order to create the room necessary to keep Prescott, add free agents and sign draft picks, the Cowboys will have to restructure contracts or cut players.

The issue with restructuring is it takes away future salary-cap space and can make it more difficult to release players in the years to come because the dead money hit is so great.

Last year, the Cowboys restructured the deals for offensive tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to create $27 million in salary-cap space that was always intended to carry over to 2021. In a perfect world, the Cowboys would not touch those contracts now, but it's not a perfect world.

Smith's contract is the one to avoid. He has not played a full season since 2015, and he played in two games last season before undergoing neck surgery. While Smith, 30, remains one of the best left tackles in the NFL when healthy, the "when healthy," part is a major issue.

There is guesswork involved with Martin and Lawrence because of their health, too. Martin, 30, missed six games last season because of a concussion and a calf strain. Lawrence, 28, has dealt with knee issues recently. Do the Cowboys take a risk and rework their deals, which could create about $17 million in space?

The most obvious candidate for a contract restructure is wide receiver Amari Cooper. The Cowboys can turn about $19 million of his $20 million base salary into a signing bonus and create $14 million (or so) in room. But what's the downside? The plus of the Cooper deal at the time of signing was the Cowboys could get out of it after the second year with a $6 million cap hit in 2022. If they restructure Cooper in 2021, they could chew up almost all of the savings they would have gained should they walk away.

Again, not a perfect world.

Offensive tackle La'el Collins is another candidate. The Cowboys could gain a little more than $6 million in room by reworking his contract. Even though Collins did not play last season because of hip surgery, he turns 28 in July, so he should be entering the prime of his career. Last week his agent, Deryk Gilmore, tweeted that his client is not retiring, cutting down a rumor Collins might have been considering walking away.

Again, not a perfect world.

What about running back Ezekiel Elliott? His $9.6 million 2021 base salary is already fully guaranteed. His $12 million base salary in 2022 becomes fully guaranteed in March. In all likelihood, he is tied to the Cowboys the next two seasons. By restructuring Elliott's contract, the Cowboys could gain about $6 million in space but would add signing bonus proration to future years that could make it harder to cut.

There are some other options, such as releasing linebacker Jaylon Smith, but only as a post-June 1 designee, which would open up $7.2 million in space this year and cost Dallas $6.8 million in 2022. Releasing punter Chris Jones would net them $2 million, and it's important to note that Hunter Niswander, who took over after Jones had core muscle surgery last season, performed well. Most of the remaining moves would be like finding coins under a couch cushion.

None of the options are perfect decisions for the Cowboys, but the extra $5 million for the cap helps at least a little. (Of course, another $5 million-$10 million toward the cap floor wouldn't hurt Dallas, either.)