Cowboys Free Agency: Next Moves In 'Cap Hell'

There is no such thing as Cowboys Cap Hell. There is, rather, the now-official tagging of Dez, the room-opening options involving Romo, and the fluidity that creates for Dallas the ability to shop for as much as $46.5 million worth of free-agency help.



Salary Cap Hell

As our astute readers know, there is no such thing as Salary Cap Hell. The salary cap is dynamic, not static. It fluctuates from year to year, moving the ceiling up as the league brings in more and more revenue. It is entirely possible, and likely, that each year’s cap rises above and beyond the projected increases, because the NFL annually brings in more money beyond anyone's wildest dreams. In addition and possibly more importantly, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that is agreed to by the NFL and the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) allows for multiple contract mechanisms that allow teams to play “funny money” with the amount of cap space used on each deal. Teams can very easily spend ‘X’ amount of dollars on a player one year, yet have up to five years to actually “be charged” for that amount.

Along with the fluctuation and fluidity comes the business steps towards managing a roster and a cap. A major step is, of course, now official: Dez Bryant has been given the franchise tag by the Dallas Cowboys.

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Cowboys COO Stephen Jones tells us: "We just don't want to lose his rights. We think Dez is a unique player and certainly a big part of what we do in terms of what we've done, our success, and certainly going forward. We've got a long period of time where we can work, continue to work on doing something long term for Dez."

Agent Tom Condon tells SiriusXM: "Dez understands this is business. We're going to try to figure something out here and work with Jerry and Stephen and get something done.''

For more insight into the inner workings of the cap, make sure you check out our October series on the Cowboys 2015 Salary Cap Overview, Part I. That article discussed carrying over cap space from one year to the next, projected salary for the next year and the projected cap for next year (new numbers lock that in at $143.28 million).

A couple of weeks ago, Dallas had $8.5 million in cap space going into free agency; how would the Cowboys afford to bring back Dez and the majority of those 23 free agents? Even more worrisome, how is Dallas going to be able to improve?

Simple … Salary Cap Math.

Cap Math

Salary-Cap Math is the use of reallocation to pay a player the exact same amount that is agreed upon for his base salary. The most common method, Restructure Bonus, is when base salary for a year is converted to bonus money. That money is normally then paid immediately to the player instead of over the 17-week regular season (unless an agreement is made for the bonus to be spread out as well). It allows the same “salary” to hit multiple years of the team’s cap instead of just one. If a team converts $10 mil of base salary into a bonus (and that player has a minimum of five years remaining on his deal) then that $10 million hit is now only a $2-million hit. It just adds a $2 million hit to the cap in each of the next four years as well.

Salary-Cap Math also includes being able to wipe out potential cap charges for players that are not living up to their part of the contract. While it sucks for the player, the majority of an NFL contract is not guaranteed. At any time, a team can release a player and they are no longer responsible for any non-guaranteed money.

It is in these two methodologies where Dallas will once again prove that Cap Hell is a simply a media narrative used to fill up space and generate website clicks. The truth? Dallas can afford Dez AND DeMarco AND ... well, anybody.

Examples of cap-savings options?

*Dez will be one, if Dallas can do its "Cowboys For Life'' deal with him before March 10 (to help shopping) or before July 15 (to help simply spread impact). That $12.8-mil hit can suddenly be a $5.4-mil hit for 2015, if the Cowboys do Dez' new deal as we outline here.

*Henry Melton is already another. The Cowboys had a built-in three-year option that kicked in if they wanted to, but it would've cost them $9 mil in 2015 for Melton's services. So, Melton is gone, option not picked up. Dallas will only eat $750,000 in dead money, meaning the move saves them another $8.5 mil off their projected cap hit.

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*Cole Beasley. Now, Melton is a big one. Beasley is a small one. (Pun intended.) Dallas was working to get past just giving him a second-round tender (counting $2.356 mil) to instead give him a fair, affordable longer-team deal, thus spreading out the impact. This four-year deal, Beasley himself tells us, is done. See the details here, but understand the cap-related impact now: Instead of Beasley counting against the 2015 cap to the tune of $2.356 mil, his cap number will be $1.66 mil ... so Dallas keeps a player it values and saves $800,000 against the cap.

*Brandon Carr is a biggie. Carr’s base salary of $8 mil is barely above the final two years of prorated signing bonus ($7.4 mil) in 2016 and 2017. When combined with the $4.7 mil of prorated bonus in 2015, it’s a wash to outright release the underperforming corner. As a June 1st cut, moving on from Carr would have it’s benefits. Dallas would get $8 mil in 2015 cap space to work with. The downside, though, is that $7.4 million would now be 2016 dead money ... and your roster would be short a cornerback, which is why CowboysHQ.com is told Dallas is presently negotiating with agent Ben Dogra to find a way to un-do/re-do Carr in order to retain him.

*Tyron Smith is a pre-designed trigger waiting to be flipped. Smith signed a huge extension in 2014, but those in the know think that Dallas did well for itself in the construction of the deal. Smith’s “bargain” signing bonus of $10 million is allocated over five years at just $2 mil per year. Smith's 2015 base salary is a little over $11 mil, with each of the next six years being at just $10 mil in base salary. Restructuring Smith to the league-minimum could net Dallas another $8 million in cap space.

*Tony Romo ... and there are all sorts of options here. They might not hesitate to push off a good chunk of his $27.8-mil 2015 cap hit if they want to go shopping for big fish. A restructure that moves $16 mil from base salary to signing bonus (his base would still have to be league-minimum, roughly $1 mil) prorated over five years, would give the Cowboys an additional $12.8 million of cap space.

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Remember, this doesn't escape you from responsibility, it just moves it, as the team would still be on hook for $32 million of unamortized bonus over the 2016-2019 seasons.

It is important at this point to remember, Dallas doesn’t HAVE to restructure any or all of these deals, and if they choose to, don’t always have to restructure a base salary down to the league-minimum for the year. These are simply various options they have should they choose to create additional cap room for other signings. This is part of "the business,'' as Condon says, as it relates to Dez ... and literally hundreds of other options that could create as much as $46.5 million in cap room ... thus allowing the Cowboys themselves -- though we bet they are more "second-wave'' bidders than first-wave -- to dream as big as Cowboys fans always do.

Onside Kicks

*So Dez gets the non-exclusive franchise tag, Stephen Jones tells CowboysHQ.com. That puts Dallas at $129 million of used cap space ... plus Dez' $12.8 mil hold ... which equals $141.8 million. But the cap is at $143.28 million? Yes. Now add the $5 million carryover from 2014 (that essentially makes Dallas' cap $148 mil) ... and there was about $7 mil of room before the Beasley deal.

*We mock-draft all seven rounds for the Cowboys ... and come up with some doozies.

*Cowboys fans get the Premium goods: What the Cowboys say privately about Greg Hardy. (Hint: Maybe the more you look, the less you like.)

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*In an exclusive with Stephen Jones, CowboysHQ.com learns the team's "shop-and-drop'' plans with DeMarco Murray. And as you ponder the McCoy-to-Bills deal (Philly seeing one of the two best runners in football as too expensive and expendable) prepare yourself for buzz about the single best runner in football, Adrian Peterson -- and how the market is too flooded with "good'' to overpay for "good.''


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