Cowboys 2015 Salary Cap Overview, Part 2 Of 2

After looking at the lengthy list of future free agents in Part One, this final installment of the two-part series examines the Cowboys' 2015 cap situation from the perspective of which players' deals might be affected and what are some possible avenues for the team to keep key players in place. How to keep the gang together?

Previously, we took a look inside the Cowboys contracts and found that there are numerous players that have significant roles on the 2014 Dallas team, that are not under contract with the club for 2015. Rest assured, the front office has many members working numbers to try and figure out who they will be able to keep and who they might chose to walk away from. Read Part 1 of our "Cowboys Cap 2015 Report'' here.)

Is it at all possible for the club to sign both Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray for next season? Who would have to be the sacrificial lamb for that to happen? What are the chances that the Cowboys could keep Rolando McClain in town and give Cowboys fans their wet dream of teaming him up with a (hopefully) healthy Sean Lee?

Here in Part Two of our Salary Cap Overview, we take a look at some of the moves available for Dallas, so that our readers can keep these things in mind as the season progresses.

Under-Contract Decisions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you are very well aware that the Cowboys have no issue with restructuring current deals in order to create more space under the cap. What they’ve shown in the last go around, is that they might be more judicial than ever in deciding who exactly gets restructured. The club restructured Tony Romo, Orlando Scandrick and Sean Lee’s deal in this past offseason. However, they left the deals of Brandon Carr and Jason Witten alone, even though it could have meant more space to comfortably keep DeMarcus Ware. As Jerry and Stephen Jones surrounds themselves with more and more intelligent voices, the combination of accounting magic and smart personnel moves might just be integrating.

Player2015 Base SalaryCost-Saving MeasureDead Money Breakdown
QB Tony Romo$17 millionIf Romo survives 2014 without major injury, and this young team looks on the verge of beginning of a multi-year championship threat, the club will probably continue to look at Romo as a viable “3-4 more years” type of player. They might not hesitate to push off a good chunk of his $27.8m 2015 cap hit. A restructure that moves $16m from base salary to signing bonus (his base would still have to be league minimum, roughly $1m) prorated over five years, would give the Cowboys an additional $12.8 million of cap space.None for now, but team would still be on hook for $32m of unamortized bonus over the 2016-2019 seasons.
TE Jason Witten$5.1 millionFew believe that Jason Witten would ever be given the same ultimatum that DeMarcus Ware was, but you never know. Witten's total cap hit of $8.5 million still carries one final year of big signing bonus hit. It would probably behoove the team to keep Witten one last year before walking away prior to 2016.If they do move on prior to '15, the club would reap savings of just under $3.3 million with a dead money impact of $5.24m on the '15 cap. A June 1st cut would add almost $2m to the '15 cap space, but add $1.8m to the 2016 dead money ledger
CB Brandon Carr$8 millionBrandon Carr’s base salary ($8m) is barely above the final two years of prorated signing bonus ($7.4m) in 2016 and 2017. When combined with the $4.7m of prorated bonus in 2015, it’s a wash to outright release the underperforming corner. However, as a June 1st cut, moving on from Carr would have it’s benefits. Dallas would get $8m in 2015 cap space to work with.The downside is that $7.4 million would now be 2016 dead money; or the equivalent of what the team will have on it's books in 2015 from the long-since departed Miles Austin and Kyle Orton combined.
OT Doug Free$8 millionWoah, slow down Tonto. The $8m on the books for Free isn't really there. As part of his original deal, in order to prorate signing bonus over more years than were in the contract, Dallas employed the voidable years trick. They added years that are voided by other parts of the contract. Isn't cap accounting fun!? IF Dallas choses to let Free go, they will have $4m in dead money on the 2015 books, but that will be compared to the $12m earmarked currently. Signing Free to a two or three year deal could still see Dallas saving about $3 million off this cap hit.
DT Henry Melton$9 millionThe Cowboys have a built-in three year option that kicks in if they want to, but it would cost them $9m in 2015 for Melton's services. At this point, that's a long way from happening. Melton would have to spend much more time on the field than he has in the first 1/3rd of the season to make this coin.Dallas would only eat $750k in dead money, meaning the move would save them $8.5m off their projected cap hit.

Left out from this discussion, is the back-pocket choice to turn any future year of Tyron Smith's 10-year extension from base salary to signing bonus. This is, in effect, a $9m safety valve whenever Dallas chooses to use it. Don't want to make one of the moves above? Replace it with a Smith maneuver.The Cowboys could also reap some savings by moving on from players such as Terrell McClain and Mack Bernadeau, individually work more than $1m of base salary each.

Draft Class Costs

Over the past four years, signing bonus’ for rookies have remained stagnant. The first overall pick in 2014 received the same signing bonus as the 2011 first overall pick. This is because the total amount paid to rookies under the rookie wage scale is capped from one year to the next. There is a formula, and the annual increase in base salary from one year to the next, $15,000, has always been more than the formula has allowed. That is expected to change in 2015.

Even though Dallas currently has 44 players on it’s 2015 roster, we can’t assume the entire 2015 draft haul will hit the financial books. That would be a $5m cap hit depending on where Dallas drafts and what kind of compensatory picks they are awarded. However, by the time the draft rolls around, Dallas will have signed players that will force the invocation of the Rule Of The Top 51. During the offseason when rosters can be up to 90 players, only the Top 51 count against the salary cap. Dallas will only need about $2.5 million of their space to sign their rookie class.

The Upshot

With about $37.5 million remaining after stashing cash for the rooks, Dallas will once again want to ensure it has working money for the 2015 season. So let’s say the Cowboys earmark $5 million and moves their useable cap money to $32.5 million. The following is all conjecture, just to show one of the myriad of ways the offseason could be approached. For the final time, we’ll dive more into specifics as the season moves forward.

Dallas would seemingly have more than enough to sign WR Dez Bryant to his long-term deal; even one for as close to $100 million total value. A $20m signing bonus and $1m base salary would put his 2015 cap hit at $6 million. The team could make qualifying offers to their RFAs of Leary, Harris and Beasley and spend another $6 million. This solidifies their starting offensive line, wide receivers and their special teams units.

McClain didn't even exist as an NFL commodity over the summer. Now? Yup.

Dallas could then focus on their linebackers. Would a new deal for McClain come close to the deal given Sean Lee? Probably not. He could probably be signed for a $3m cap hit in 2015, and Bruce Carter might stay for around $3 million. A $11m linebacker core isn’t out of the question. Anthony Hitchens fills that group out nicely.

Saying good-bye to Carr means they would probably want to keep Sterling Moore, a much cheaper option. Moore wouldn’t command anywhere near Orlando Scandrick’s original deal, and could probably sit with $4m bonus on top of $1m base for a hit of only $2 million.

At this point, you’re probably choosing in-house versus street free agents, based on performance through the rest of the season. With how they’re playing currently, is there going to be a river of tears of Week 17 is the final time we see any of the rest of the names in Cowboys uniforms? Spencer, maybe.. Durant, possibly… but Selvie, Hayden, Brent, Jones, Parnell… those guys are replacement level or slightly better; hopefully pushed out by young guys that will improve.

Dallas still has over $12m in “useable” space remaining.

While the merit of signing any running back in today’s game is a heated, and worthwhile, debate topic, what we want to do here is see if it’s a viable option for Dallas to retain DeMarco Murray. They might want to do a multi-year deal, they might not. If not, what are the options.

With these calculations, the club is more than capable of slapping a tag on Murray and keeping him in the fold for another season. Last year’s running back transition tag was around $8 million; based of the same formula as the non-exclusive franchise tag that will be discussed below. Here, the starting point is the average of the Top 10 salaries at the position instead of the Top 5, a huge difference. The Transition tag would probably be around $8.3 million for 2015.


The transition tag would allow Murray to negotiate a contract with another team, but Dallas would have the right of first refusal. If they wanted to match the offer, they would do so and keep Murray in the fold. If they didn’t want to match, Murray would leave but Dallas wouldn’t get any immediate compensation. That would have to wait until the 2016 NFL Draft when they would be awarded a compensatory pick (as high as a third rounder).

Another option would be to use the non-exclusive franchise tag. This adds the element of immediate compensation if another team wants to sign Murray, two first-round picks. With a loaded running back draft, it’s highly doubtful any team would jump on this opportunity, but you never know when you’re talking the league’s leading rusher. Here though, Dallas would commit to a one-year salary off a formula that is based on the average of the last 5 franchise tag amounts for running backs. Whatever percentage that number is of the total salary cap over the last five years, that same percentage of the 2015 cap would determine the non-exclusive franchise tag number. (Fish reports on 105.3 The Fan that the Cowboys have no intention of franchise-tagging DeMarco at that high price.)

In 2014, the NEFT was 7.17 percent of the total cap. If the cap is set at $142.5m, that would mean Murray’s franchise tag amount would be around $10 million. For reference purposes, wideouts were 9.12 percent. A non-exclusive Dez tag would be $13m. These are normally starting points for negotiations with players of this caliber.

For multiple years now, I’ve written articles explaining that Dallas’ version of cap management, while vastly different from the status quo, should not be looked at in the light it has always been cast. While it remains to be seen whether this hot start continues into a fruitful season, it can’t be denied that Dallas has constructed a roster more than capable of competing in the 2014 NFL. Moving on from DeMarcus Ware was because the team didn’t think his declining skills were worthy of the hefty price tag he commanded. It wasn’t just about “we can’t afford him” because they could if they wanted to. By the way, after 5 games in the NFL season, Pro Football Focus ranks Ware as the 35th best edge rusher in the league. Worth $16m of cap space to you?

The salary cap and its management can never be fully captured by hard rules and regulations as to how a team should approach it. For now, the Cowboys seem no worse the wear for how they’ve approached their cap management while transitioning a roster that has less than double-digit players remaining from when Jason Garrett took over the team in 2010. Let’s see how they manage it moving forward. ... and trust us, we'll do the same work they do, with our Big Cowboys Calculator.

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