Cowboys Offseason Manifesto: Free Agency Fire

Dallas has stayed quiet over the last few years of free agency, as the team has waded in the waters of mediocrity. Now they have catapulted to the top of the league. With numerous holes remaining, will we see the return of an open-wallet Jerry Jones? Should we?

The 2014 NFL Season is now complete and a champion has been crowned. 31 other teams now have the task of improving themselves to a level capable of overthrowing the champions. The SuperBowls’ two contenders, New England and Seattle both finished the regular season as their conferences number one seeds with a 12-4 record, the same as Dallas. The Cowboys weren’t far away at all, however…

If Dallas wants to make the next step in their quest for a sixth Lombardi, drastic steps will need to be made. There are holes in the roster that need to be addressed. A great way of looking at a championship caliber team is one that has an All-Pro level player at every level of the team, as well as one dominating unit. Dallas has some work to do to achieve this.

As discussed in Parts One (here) and Two (here), Dallas has a finite window of opportunity that circles around the health and longevity of a soon-to-be-35-year-old quarterback in Tony Romo. Franchise quarterbacks rarely excel past 36, and almost never past 37. Dallas cannot remain complacent and assume similar success awaits them, even if they sign enough players to have a similar roster to last year. For the first time in years, we are advocating that Dallas become spenders in the free agent market. At the same time, though, the Cowboys need to avoid the pitfalls of other franchises that foolishly wade into a “win-now” mode by signing big ticket free agents with warts of age or unsustained greatness in contract seasons. The Dallas “splash” free agents must be players that are coming off of their rookie deals, and preferably ones that are finishing off just their third or fourth years.

This allows Dallas to get superstar players that can contribute superstar skillsets immediately, but they also are players with little risk that they will be underperforming by the time they reach the back-half of their contracts; presumably the next few years after Romo’s window closes. A savvy front-office that puts a Romo successor in place over the next two years could even keep a championship window open with a new franchise quarterback. If the deals are constructed properly, Dallas would still be able to walk away from said players after the 2-3 window closes anyway.

Scanning the list of players still on the Dallas depth chart, here is our interpretation of the biggest holes that need to be addressed.

Offensive Needs: WR1, WR3, RB3 , RT1

Defensive Needs: DE1, DE4, LB1, LB4, FS1, CB3, 3T2

Special Teams Needs: P, KR, ST Ace

Most observers would agree that Dallas is in need of better pass-rushing. Yet, there is solid, irrefutable, concrete evidence that says a team is very unlikely to get that production out of a draft pick. CowboysHQ’s Joey Ickes ran the numbers; since 2005 rookie pass rushers taken in the top 100 picks of the draft, average just 2.46 sacks in their first seasons. Over on BloggingTheBoys, they looked at Pro Football Focus’ grades for Rookie DEs and reached similar conclusions. The solution for Dallas at defensive end for 2015 will not likely come from a draft pick, especially down at Pick 27.

The Cowboys defense is also in need of a ball-hawking safety. Fans should be wary though, this has become one of the hardest positions to grab in the draft with immediate success. There were 21 first or second-year safeties that played over 25% of their team’s defensive snaps in 2014. Only two of them, Bradley McDougle of Tampa Bay and Tyrann Mathieu of Arizona, graded above +3.0 in pass coverage on the season according to Pro Football Focus. Dallas has been noted for their aversion to spend big resources on the position, but showed they may not be as opposed to it as thought when they would have used their 2013 first rounder on Kenny Vacarro had the Saints not snatched him up. Note that Vacarro isn’t on this list +3.0 coverage guys.

See where this is going?

Here, we take a look at a possible gameplan for Dallas to attack their roster deficiencies. This is simply our take on the Free Agent landscape; Will McClay and Stephen Jones would have to agree on not only the players fit into what Dallas does but at the pricetag they command for these marriages to occur. As we pointed out in Part Two of our Offseason Manifesto, Dallas has several cap moves at their discretion that they can use to create cap room upwards of $45 million. Dallas doesn’t have to make all of these moves in advance, either. They will be under the cap by the start of the league year and can base their reallocations on which players they bring in.

POSITION PLAYER
CONTRACT TERMS
2015 CAP HIT

WR

DEZ BRYANT

7 Years/ $100m

$5.245m

Here’s how the headline would read: ”Cowboys sign Dez Bryant to 7 year deal worth over $100 million with over $50 million in guarantees.” The reality is just like most NFL contracts, there’s a lot of window dressing on a very nice, but not crazy deal..
SIGNING BONUS GUARANTEED
3-YEAR AVG
AVG ANNUAL
$22.5M
$37.245m
$14.08m
$14.32m
YEARLY BREAKDOWN
YearBase SalaryProratedOther BonusesCap HitDead MoneySavings
2015 (26)$745,000 $4,500,000  $5,245,000 $37,245,000 ($32,000,000)
2016 (27)$9,000,000 $4,500,000  $13,500,000 $32,000,000 ($18,500,000)
2017 (28)$10,000,000 $4,500,000  $14,500,000 $18,500,000 ($4,000,000)
2018 (29)$14,000,000 $4,500,000  $18,500,000 $9,000,000 $9,500,000
2019 (30)$14,500,000 $4,500,000  $19,000,000 $4,500,000 $14,500,000
2020 (31)$14,500,000   $14,500,000 $0 $14,500,000
2021 (32)$15,000,000   $15,000,000 $0 $15,000,000
-- -- -- TOTAL CONTRACT VALUE: $100,245,000 $0 $0

Comparisons: Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Brandon Marshall

Here’s the scoop. The true guarantee of this deal is around $35m, with some extra amounts being guaranteed for injury that morph into a full guarantee at the start of the corresponding league years. There is a missing tier in between the salary structures of Johnson and Fitzgerald, and then Harvin, Bowe and others. That is a talent tier as well. Truth is, Johnson and Fitzgerald were paid at levels far greater than they should have, and the general feeling is that even though Dez is on their talent-level, he will nestle in under their salary amount. He does, however, command to be compensated at a higher level than the overpaid likes of Harvin, Wallace and Bowe. The important numbers from Bryant’s camp’s point of view are the cash in the first two years ($30m) and the 5-year Average ($13.7m) putting him above everyone except for Johnson. Dallas’ camp will think it won because the 3-year average of just north of $14m is less than the Harvin average.

Look at the breakdown of the yearly averages and the corresponding dead money. Dallas can reasonably have either a rebuild plan or buyer’s remorse after just three years and realize almost $10m of projected cap savings. The amount would be even greater should they choose to make Bryant a June 1st cut. The 7-year deal also gives them the flexibility to restructure the deal in 2016 or 2017 should they need to move money around. The club could also restructure his 2016 base salary and still see savings if they walked away from Bryant prior to 2018. It would take restructuring both 2016 and 2017 to turn a 2018 walkaway into a “wash” similar to what escaping from Brandon Carr’s current deal is for Dallas.

This deal rewards Bryant for the job he’s done and the expected impact he will have for the remainder of the Romo Window, and then leaves Dallas options once that window closes.

POSITION PLAYER
CONTRACT TERMS
2015 CAP HIT

FS

DEVIN MCCOURTY

6 Years/$54m

$3.145

As stated above, the Cowboys have avoided trying to find a solution for the free safety role for far too long. Out of the “Big Three” this is the least likely deal Dallas will pursue, but not addressing free safety in a world where the talent at the position is limited, would be a big mistake to make. Look at the Super Bowl matchup, franchise quarterbacks and franchise free safeties (amongst a couple other really good players).

SIGNING BONUS GUARANTEED
3-YEAR AVG
AVG ANNUAL
$12M
$19.75m
$9.25m
$9.04m
YEARLY BREAKDOWN
YearBaseProratedOther BonusesCap HitDead MoneySavings
2015 (27)$745,000 $2,400,000  $3,145,000 $19,745,000 ($16,600,000)
2016 (28)$7,000,000 $2,400,000  $9,400,000 $16,600,000 ($7,200,000)
2017 (29)$8,000,000 $2,400,000  $10,400,000 $7,200,000 $3,200,000
2018 (30)$9,000,000 $2,400,000  $11,400,000 $4,800,000 $6,600,000
2019 (31)$9,500,000 $2,400,000  $11,900,000 $2,400,000 $9,500,000
2020 (32)$8,000,000   $8,000,000 $0 $8,000,000
-- -- -- TOTAL CONTRACT VALUE: $54,245,000 $0 $0

Comparisons: Jairus Byrd

McCourty is basically the only worthwhile free agent free safety in 2015, and as such he will command a bidding war that we’d normally frown upon. His contract will at least match the one signed by Jairus Byrd last year to move to New Orleans. Dallas’ need at free safety is well-documented, and the ability to move J.J. Wilcox into a box role similar to how Seattle attacks with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor should have Dallas fans salivating. Barry Church as Big Nickel safety instead of Jeff Heath? Now you’re cooking with propane, buddy. The Patriots are currently over the 2015 projected cap because there is a 20+ million dollar hold due to the Darrel Revis contract. Tom Brady’s team-friendly deal doesn’t allow for much extra space to be gained from a restructure, so it is questionable of whether or not they could make a competitive offer to McCourty. If they can’t, Dallas should be first in line.

POSITION PLAYER
CONTRACT TERMS
2015 CAP HIT

DE

JUSTIN HOUSTON

6 Yrs/ $82.2m

$5.245m

The Cowboys proved in last summer’s moves that they weren’t willing to pay top dollar for a pass rusher that had seen his best days. Well, Houston seems to be on the precipice of his best days, and there’d be no better player to continue the tradition of Harvey Martin, Charles Haley, and DeMarcus Ware.

The trick is, getting Houston past Kansas City's Franchise Tag, a move they've used over their recent history. They've never been this close to the cap, though, and a franchise tag for Houston would mean serious restructuring of not only contracts, but their roster as well.

SIGNING BONUS GUARANTEED
3-YEAR AVG
AVG ANNUAL
$12M
$19.75m
$9.25m
$9.04m
YEARLY BREAKDOWN
YearBaseProratedOther BonusesCap HitDead MoneySavings
2015 (26)$745,000 $3,600,000  $4,345,000 $28,745,000 ($24,400,000)
2016 (27)$10,000,000 $3,600,000  $13,600,000 $24,400,000 ($10,800,000)
2017 (28)$12,000,000 $3,600,000  $15,600,000 $10,800,000 $4,800,000
2018 (29)$13,000,000 $3,600,000  $16,600,000 $7,200,000 $9,400,000
2019 (30)$13,500,000 $3,600,000  $17,100,000 $3,600,000 $13,500,000
2020 (31)$15,000,000   $15,000,000 $0 $15,000,000
-- -- -- TOTAL CONTRACT VALUE:$82,245,000  

Comparisons: Robert Quinn, Clay Matthews, Mario Williams

I hesitate to comp Houston against Charles Johnson of the Panthers simply because that deal was signed soonafter the resolution of the 2011 CBA and the huge signing bonus was to help Carolina get to the minimum spending limit. The deal with Quinn is not exactly the best comparison either, as it had two years remaining and was structured in such a way that the bonuses were offset by the money he was going to get anyway. He only had about $15m in guaranteed money and only averages about $10.5 million over the first three years. The Matthews deal is the closest, but Houston is by far the best pass rusher in the NFL the last three years; his pass rush productivity is through the roof. Matthews received $20.5m guaranteed and $28.5m over the first two years. His three-year average is $12.36m and is above his five-year average of $11.56m. Mario Williams deal with Buffalo was rightfully insane, as he already was at a high price-level based on being a previous No. 1 pick. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any midsized pass rusher will approach the $16m per year that he and J.J. Watt command, based on their size and ability to play so many positions up and down the line. A deal above Matthews guaranteed and first two-years money will be the starting point I anticipate Houston’s camp commanding, but falling short of the Williams and Watt deals.

POSITION PLAYER
CONTRACT TERMS
2015 CAP HIT

MLB

ROLANDO MCCLAIN

5 Yrs/ $30.2m w/ $5m in incentives

$2.35m

McClain was a blessing for the Cowboys in their quest to find a solution for the oft-injured Sean Lee. We gave a premium look as to how he compared to Lee back in November (favorably) and wondered whether or not that would lead to a Lee-like deal. McClain suffered multiple injuries that did let his season tail off at a lesser level than how it started, and that will come into play. Come 2017, Dallas will make a decision as to whether they are keeping Lee, McClain or neither.

SIGNING BONUS GUARANTEED
3-YEAR AVG
AVG ANNUAL
$8M
$13.75m
$6.45m
$6.05m
YEARLY BREAKDOWN
>
YearBaseProratedOther BonusesCap HitDead MoneySavings
2015 (26)$745,000 $1,600,000  $2,345,000 $13,745,000 ($11,400,000)
2016 (27)$5,000,000 $1,600,000  $6,600,000 $11,400,000 ($4,800,000)
2017 (28)$5,500,000 $1,600,000  $7,100,000 $4,800,000 $2,300,000
2018 (29)$5,500,000 $1,600,000  $7,100,000 $3,200,000 $3,900,000
2019 (30)$5,500,000 $1,600,000  $7,100,000 $1,600,000 $5,500,000
-- -- -- TOTAL CONTRACT VALUE:$30,245,000  

Comparisons: Sean Lee, Karlos Dansby

The Cowboys have already put themselves in a bit of a situation by publicly saying they want McClain to man the middle and move Sean Lee to weakside linebacker in 2015. Middle linebacker’s make a lot of money and McClain showed in 2014 that he actually makes impact plays at a higher rate than the uber-skilled Sean Lee. McClain is the five-tool version of the bionic-anticipatory skillset of Lee. However, McClain’s retirement history, his multiple injuries and just one season of evidence has to bring his price tag down from what Sean Lee earned in his deal that basically set the tone for what Dallas thinks a star MLB is worth. Expect a deal that has a bunch of reachable incentives, just like Lee’s did (and he didn’t reach). Slotting McClain at 1 less year, $1m less than Lee, with $5m less guarantee and $4m less earnable incentives seems a fair trade for not having the history with the team that Lee did at the time of his new deal.

POSITION PLAYER
CONTRACT TERMS
2015 CAP HIT

RT

DOUG FREE

3 Yrs/ $11.1m

$1.87m

Dallas just doesn’t seem to get much traction running right, and that was with either Free or Parnell in the game. They weren’t bad, but they didn’t nearly have the explosive plays they did running up the gut. If you’re looking for a placeholder type of free agent to bridge the gap until a draft pick is ready, Doug Free is your guy.

SIGNING BONUS GUARANTEED
3-YEAR AVG
AVG ANNUAL
$3M
$4.87m
$3.707m
$3.707m
YEARLY BREAKDOWN
>
YearBaseProratedOther BonusesCap HitDead MoneySavings
2015 (31)$870,000 $1,000,000  $1,870,000 $4,870,000 ($3,000,000)
2016 (32)$2,500,000 $1,000,000 $1,000,000 $4,500,000 $3,000,000 $1,500,000
2017 (33)$3,750,000 $1,000,000  $4,750,000 $1,000,000 $3,750,000
-- -- -- TOTAL CONTRACT VALUE:$11,120,000  

Comparisons: Breno Giocomini, Eric Winston, Tyson Clabo, Doug Free

It’s hard to find a true comp for Doug Free. 31 year old right tackles normally don’t see large deals. GIocomini left Seattle for the Jets, but he was average at best and still got $18 over 4 years. He was under 30, however. Winston going to Arizona after a great year in 2012 at the same age as free, only netted him a $1.25m one-year deal with incentives. Clabo was 32 when he signed a one-year $3.5m deal with Miami. Free technically outproduced them all. The obvious argument is that Dallas didn’t lose much when they went with Jermey Parnell in Free’s injury-absence, but others did notice a dropoff. The thinking here is the offensive line is the team’s best unit, and Free being its elder statesman means as long as he is performing at the adequate level, should be the one that kept in the mix.

POSITION PLAYER
OFFER TERMS
2015 CAP HIT
Base Salaries
Signing Bonus
Guaranteed $
LBJustin Durant2 years / $3.17 million w/ incentives$1,370,000 870k/1.3m$1,000,000 $1,000,000
WRCole Beasley (RFA)3 years / $6.4 million w/ incentives$1,296,667 745k/2m/2m$1,655,000 $3,400,000
CBSterling Moore (RFA)2 years / $4 million w/ incentives$1,245,000 745k/2.25m$1,000,000 $1,745,000
OT Tony Hills1 year / $870,000$870,000 870k$0 $0
STCJ Spillman1 year / $745,000$845,000 745k$100,000 $100,000
DEAnthony Spencer2 years / $3.75 million w/ incentives$1.87m870k/2m$1,000,000 $1,000,000
OGRon Leary (ERFA)1 year / $585,000$585,000 585k$0 $0
OT Darrion Weems (ERFA)1 year / $660,000$660,000 745k$0 $0

So where does this leave Dallas? The total amount of cap space necessary to bring these 13 players into the 2015 fold? Just shy of $26 million of cap space. That would be the figure the Cowboys need to work towards in the moves laid out in Part Two of the Manifesto. Dallas could make these moves (relinquish Melton's option, release Brandon Carr, restructure Tyron Smith), and reallocate some of Tony Romo’s salary in a way that creates the room needed to sign their 2015 draft class (approximately $2.5 million of space) and have the necessary cap space to sign in-season free agents. This plan is 100% doable should Will McClay and Stephen Jones feel the fit and compensation for said players is justified. Admittedly a big if, but this exercise is more to show what is possible in the mindset of a 2-3 year competitive window.

Dallas would be looking at a revamped starting defensive line of Lawrence-Brent-Crawford-Houston, with Mincey and Spencer rotating at DE and the second three-technique. The linebackers would be Lee-McClain-Hitchens-Durant while the secondary would be Scandrick-Claiborne-McCourty-Wilcox with Church and Patmon being the primary backups. Dallas would have an All-Pro caliber player at every level of their defense and would be looking to augment this with their 2015 draft. The biggest risk is obviously moving on from Carr (who isn’t horrible, just overpaid) and not knowing where the team stands with Claiborne’s injury (or ability). On offense, Dallas would be returning the starting offensive line, their dominating unit. Their top three receivers and all of their tight ends return, boasting an All-Pro level candidate there, as well as a franchise quarterback who was third in MVP voting. The only thing missing is the running back, the most replaceable position in the league in a draft season heavy on talented runners. This is the type of team that is a legitimate contender for a championship.

Down the line, the cap space saved by moving on from Melton and Carr opens up a lot of the space needed in 2016 and 2017’s projected cap scenarios. It’s basically a straight substitution of Bryant and McCourty’s salaries for theirs. That’s why walking away from Carr, in totality, is the lynch pin that makes this free agency kick work. Fitting first-year cap hits is easy, it’s later when the base salaries start to balloon that get complicated.

In Part Four of the series, we’ll take a look at whether or not such moves would make Dallas too top-heavy for long-term success and viability. In the meantime, Cowboys fans can wave at the notion of 'Cap Hell'... use of thumb, ring, index and pinky fingers are optional.


CowboysHQ Top Stories