Balancing the Checkbook: How can the Cowboys free up cap space?

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DALLAS (105.3 The Fan) - The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted just about anything and everything over the last two years. With its absurd rate of revenue growth over the last several years, the NFL was not immune from that impact.

From 2013 through 2020, the NFL saw the salary cap grow by at least $10 million each season. Before the pandemic, many projected that the cap would begin to balloon at an even higher rate with new television deals on the horizon.

That rate of growth came to a screeching halt in 2020, with COVID-19 restrictions drastically reducing league revenue, and causing the cap to go down for the first time since it was introduced in 1994.

Revenue is back up this season, and the NFL informed teams in December that the cap is projected to be a little over $208 million, a $25.7 million dollar increase from the 2021 season. That still puts them $10-14 million short of where teams thought they would be in 2022 before the pandemic.

With teams still trying to adjust and balance their books, and the Cowboys giving a hefty new contract to their quarterback last spring, the Jones family finds themselves in a bit of a squeeze on the cap.

OverTheCap.com currently lists the Cowboys as being $21 million over the salary cap ahead of the new league year. Dallas will have to restructure some deals, make some tough decisions in regards to their free agents, and may even have to release or trade some of their bigger contributors.

With the $21 million dollar deficit on the cap in mind, today we’re going to take a look at some of the players the Cowboys could be eyeballing as a way to reduce their cap burden.

We’ll be discussing things like voidable years, post-June 1 releases, and restructuring contracts. If you need a quick education on those terms and what they mean, check out these articles:

What in the World Are “Voidable Years” and Why Are They Dominating NFL Free Agency?

Why post-June 1 designations play a significant role in helping teams manage their salary cap?

Looking at Restructuring NFL Contracts

With that background in hand, let’s dive into some of these ways the Cowboys could get some spending money in 2022.

Amari Cooper

Potential Cap Savings: $12.5-20m

Amari Cooper is a bit of a puzzling financial case.

The Cowboys re-signed Amari Cooper to a five-year, $100 million contract right as the pandemic exploded in the U.S. in March of 2020.

The contract was fairly straightforward, with $20 million in cash due to him each year of the deal.

Only $40 million was guaranteed at signing, which meant the final three years of the contract was ripe for a restructure in 2021. The Cowboys chose not to take advantage of the potential savings of a restructure, which raised some eyebrows about Cooper’s future, especially since they did choose to restructure Ezekiel Elliott’s less-than-ideal contract.

Unlike most big money contracts, the Cowboys would save more money by an outright, pre-June 1 release, than they would by restructuring his deal. That makes Cooper a prime target for release.

If the Cowboys restructured Cooper’s deal they could free up as much as $12.5 million in savings. If they released him before June 1 they would save $16 million, and they could get as much as $20 million in savings if they designated him as a post-June 1 release. The question at that point would be if Dallas really wants to carry Cooper’s cap number through the end of May for an extra $4 million.

Is the savings worth losing Cooper as a weapon? Could they take the $16 million in savings and re-sign Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, and Malik Turner for a combined 2022 cap figure that’s lower than that $16 million dollar number? If the Cowboys think they can retain those three while also managing to still pocket some savings, they might choose to move on from Cooper.

Cooper is a true #1 receiver, and the offense has shown in recent years that it simply isn’t as good when he’s not involved. But the Cowboys have some tough financial decisions to make, and Cooper could be caught up in that.

Whatever the Cowboys decide, they’ll likely have to make their decision by March 20th.
That’s the fifth day of the new league year, and the day that Cooper’s 2022 salary becomes fully guaranteed.

DeMarcus Lawrence

Potential Cap Savings: $8-$19m

DeMarcus Lawrence became the first $100 million dollar man in Cowboys history when he signed his five-year, $105 million dollar deal ahead of the 2019 season. The Cowboys restructured Lawrence’s deal in 2020, and added a void year to the contract in order to free up $12 million dollars in cap space.

Lawrence’s cap figure is a whopping $27 million next season, and $29 million in 2023. That $27 million dollar number is the second-highest on the books for next year, and it’s unlikely that the Cowboys will carry Lawrence into 2022 at that figure.

The Cowboys have a couple of ways they can use Lawrence’s deal to gain some relief on the 2022 cap.

Dallas could release or trade Lawrence and immediately save $8 million dollars in 2022. If they wanted to trade Lawrence in June, or designate him as a post-June 1 cut, they can save up to $19 million next year.

Lawrence is going to turn 30 in April, and he hasn’t registered double-digit sacks since he signed his new deal, but the Cowboys are a definitively better defense with Lawrence on the field.

The Cowboys averaged 1.22 fewer yards allowed per play, and almost doubled their turnover percentage on the snaps Lawrence played in 2022.

So if you want to keep Lawrence, but still benefit from the savings, the Cowboys could opt to restructure his deal. That could free up nearly $12 million dollars next season. The problem with maximizing the restructure for those savings is that it would boost Lawrence’s 2023 cap figure to over $34 million.

Dallas could alternatively choose a smaller restructure to free up some cash, while also keeping Lawrence’s 2023 cap number a little lower.

Dak Prescott

Potential Cap Savings: $15.1m

Most players we discuss today will have multiple ways that you can gain savings on the cap, but we’re only going to deal in reality with Dak Prescott. You aren’t trading him, you aren’t cutting him, so we aren’t even going to look at what those numbers would be.

The only realistic relief with Prescott’s deal is a restructure, and it’s something that would seem likely given the Cowboys put two void years at the end of Prescott’s contract, and the final year doesn’t have any money on it right now.

Restructuring Prescott would give the Cowboys as much as $15.1 million in cap relief. They could choose to restructure a smaller portion of Prescott’s $20 million dollar salary in 2022, but they might as well maximize the savings given the empty void year at the end of the deal.

Just as Amari Cooper has a guarantee trigger on the fifth day of the league year, Prescott does as well.

His entire $31 million dollar salary for 2023 guarantees on that day, which would boost the fully guaranteed money remaining on Prescott’s deal from $20 million to $51 million. That would give Dallas some greater flexibility to free up money next offseason, but wouldn’t be available in 2022.

Tyron Smith

Potential Cap Savings: $5.4-$13.5m

When Tyron Smith signed his eight-year, $97.6 million dollar extension in 2014, Dak Prescott hadn’t even played his junior season at Mississippi State yet. This is a very old contract, which means the pay scale is also out of date, and largely a bargain.

Smith’s deal has been restructured three times: 2016, 2020, and again in 2021. The Cowboys can choose to do it a fourth time, and free up an additional $8.2 million dollars in 2022.

If the Cowboys cut or trade Smith they can save $5.4 million before June 1, and $13.5 million if they wait until June.

While Smith’s health has slowly deteriorated since 2016, and he’ll be 32 next season, his contract isn’t some overly-expensive albatross that the Cowboys need to get out from under.

Still, there are options on the table for Dallas to free up additional savings if they so choose.

Zack Martin

Potential Cap Savings: $7.1m

While there have been some questions about Tyron Smith’s health, and whether he’s now entered a period of decline, those same questions haven’t yet come up for Zack Martin.

Martin signed a six-year extension before the 2018 season, and the Cowboys have only restructured it once since then, freeing up $7 million in space last offseason.

Because the Cowboys have been relatively disciplined in moving Martin’s money around, they could get some relief with a release or trade. $3.1 million on the low end, and up to $11.8 million on the high end, depending on the date designation.

Moving on from Martin isn’t on the table, however. So the only realistic option is to look at a restructure for a second consecutive offseason.

The Cowboys can once again free up around $7 million dollars if they choose to restructure Zack Martin.

There hasn’t been any buzz about a contract extension, but Dallas could free up another million and a half of so if they decided to put a year or two on the back end of Martin’s deal.

La’el Collins

Potential Cap Savings: $1.8-$10m

La’el Collins is now on his second extension with the team, signing his most recent five-year, $50 million dollar deal at the beginning of the 2019 season.

Collins missed the entirety of the 2020 season with an injury, and missed six games due to suspension in 2021. He was unable to immediately win back the starting job from Terence Steele, although he eventually returned to the starting lineup, and played well.

Collins damaged trust in the building when he showed up to camp in 2020 out of shape, and there were some in the building who were not happy with how he handled his suspension appeal, and that’s without mentioning their displeasure with the suspension itself.

Steele filled in admirably during Collins’ absence, he’s four years younger, and Collins’ 2022 cap number is 17 times that of Steele’s.

The lost trust, the dollar amount, and the readiness of a younger, cheaper player waiting in the wings means anything is on the table with how the Cowboys choose to approach Collins’ future.

Collins is still a really good right tackle, and he’s a relatively affordable one on the open market. If you wanted to move on from him, he would have value on the trade market.

Cutting or trading Collins before June 1 would save just $1.8 million, but if they made the move in June, Dallas would save $10 million in 2022. Could Dallas get through free agency, cover their bases in the draft, and then move Collins for draft compensation ahead of training camp? It’s at the very least a reasonable thing to consider.

If the Cowboys wanted to keep Collins, and with Connor Williams likely to depart in free agency, perhaps the Cowboys decide Collins’ future here is at left guard. In that instance a restructure would make some sense.

The Cowboys restructured Collins last offseason freed up a little over $5 million. They could restructure again this offseason and net themselves as much as $5.9 million dollars in cap flexibility.

Ezekiel Elliott

Potential Cap Savings: $9m

Ezekiel Elliott’s contract is a bad one. Even if you believe in what he brings to the table, even the most ardent Elliott supporter would have to acknowledge that the deal is probably the most financially difficult contract the Cowboys currently hold.

Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million dollar extension in September 2019, and the Cowboys opted for a restructure last offseason to free up $7 million. Elliott’s rushing yards per game in the first three years of his career was 101. That has dipped by 32 yards per game over the last three years since he signed his deal.

Because of the large dollar figures involved, the 2021 restructure, and the trigger that fully guaranteed his 2022 salary a year in advance, it’s impossible to save any money by releasing Elliott. It would add an additional $11 million to the cap if they released him before June 1.

The Cowboys could save a couple hundred thousand dollars if they traded Elliott before June 1, and they’d save $12.4 million by trading him in June or later, but the production relative to the contract value makes it highly unlikely that you’d be able to find a trade partner to work with you on that.

The only realistic way Dallas can free up some additional cap space with Elliott’s deal is by restructuring again, but that would only add to the financial burden in the future when you need to move on. If Dallas did decide they were comfortable with another restructure, the Cowboys could free up as much as $9 million.

Many people within the Cowboys organization regret the Elliott deal. There are plenty of supporters for Tony Pollard who would like to see a more prominent role for him moving forward. I think that makes it unlikely that Dallas would do anything to make moving on more difficult in the future.

Smaller Savings

While the aforementioned players are Dallas’ best opportunities for large savings, there are a few moderate savings to be had in other parts of the roster.

Anthony Brown or Jourdan Lewis

Potential Cap Savings: $2.3-$5m

2nd round corner Kelvin Joseph is expected to have a larger role next season, and the Cowboys added Nahshon Wright at corner in the third round. That makes it unlikely that both Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis will be back next season, especially when they present some savings.

Brown is entering the final year of his three-year contract, so a restructure isn’t possible, and there’s no added financial benefit to waiting until June 1 to release him. The Cowboys could net $5 million in savings if they traded or released Brown this offseason.

If the Cowboys prefer to keep Brown at the higher cap figure, they could still get some savings from moving on from Lewis. Releasing or trading Lewis to make room for the young corners would save $2.3 million if you ripped off the band-aid immediately, or you could save and extra $1.1 million if you waited until June.

I don’t think Dallas will move on from both players (unless something falls into their lap early in the draft) but the cap savings available coupled with the young players behind Brown and Lewis means it’s likely at least one will be out.

Blake Jarwin

Potential Cap Savings: $1.7-$4.8m

Blake Jarwin appeared poised for a breakout after a strong close to the 2018 season, but Jason Witten’s return to the Cowboys put that on hold in 2019.

The Cowboys gave Jarwin a four-year, $22 million dollar extension ahead of 2020, but a season-ending injury in the opener ended that opportunity early. When Jarwin returned healthy in 2021, Dalton Schultz had taken hold of the job, and Jarwin would battle injuries again this past season.

Four years after Jarwin appeared ready to take hold of the starting job, and become a big time contributor for the Cowboys, 2022 might finally be the year. Schultz is expected to command big money in free agency, and so now it’s up to the Cowboys to decide they want Jarwin to finally be the guy.

If Dallas decides to continue with Jarwin, they can secure a small savings of $1.7 million with a restructure.

If Dallas decides to give Sean McKeon a chance at the job, or if they find a tight end they like in free agency or the draft, then they could net a decent slice of cap savings by moving on from Jarwin. A pre-June 1 trade or release would save the Cowboys $3.8 million, and making a move after June 1 would bump that up to $4.8 million.

Greg Zuerlein

Potential Cap Savings: $2.4m

This is going to be a no-brainer for the Cowboys. Greg Zuerlein won’t be their kicker in 2022.

Zuerlein struggled for much of the last two years in Dallas, and Special Teams coach Bones Fassel determined by season’s end that Zuerlein’s issues were psychological. Once you have a kicker that’s lost it between the ears, it’s really hard to get that back.

Zuerlein would be gone in 2022 even if there weren’t any savings to be had, but the Cowboys are fortunate that they can create a little extra financial room by moving on from him.

Releasing Zuerlein will clear almost $2.5 million dollars in cap space for the Cowboys. Only seven Cowboys on the roster present a bigger savings with a pre-June 1 release.

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