$11.8 million. $11.55 million. $6.24 million. Those are the average salaries earned by the Top 10 players at defensive end, cornerback and right tackle, respectively, in 2015. Not having to pay that type of money down the line could be the reason why Dallas is a competitive franchise for years to come.
Follow the money. One of the many draft trends for the Cowboys over the last few years (read here for the full list the team once again proved to be true) has been to locate the overpaid on the roster and you can be sure Dallas will be looking to replace them through the draft and in short order. For Dallas in 2015, they are paying a high premium for Greg Hardy (pending suspension), Brandon Carr and Doug Free. They would much rather not.
As the second week of OTAs continues, rookies are becoming more familiar with life as an NFL player. For most, this will be their third week of work in the Cowboys system, and with that, concepts are likely starting to stick. It’s not a stretch to imagine rookie mini-camp was a whirlwind, but somewhat eased by the fact that all participants were in the same lifeboat of inexperience. Last week, they “graduated” to working with the veterans. This brought more scheme installation, probably at a quicker pace. The OTAs and minicamps are all about installing concepts and schemes, so that everyone is ready to prep for the season once training camp starts in late July. So with those two weeks of installation under their belt, this week the rookies should be familiar with the pace and expectations of the coaching staff. This week should be more about the work itself.
For a trio of players, the work itself will never be the entire story, though. In the 2015 NFL Draft process, Dallas was able to pull off a trifecta rarely seen. Picking at the tail end of the first round (thanks to sharing the league’s best 2014 regular season record), Dallas left the draft process with three players considered to be first round talents. With the 27th pick, they brought in Three-Sigma athlete Byron Jones. Then, with Pick 60, they snagged Randy Gregory, a player many thought was one of the top two edge rushers available. Following the draft, they inked UDFA La’El Collins to a contract. Collins was projected to be a first rounder up to a week prior to the draft, but dropped due to a stranger-than-fiction occurrence that has since been cleared up.
Three players, all with highly varied paths to the team. The common thread? All three have the capacity to line up at one of what we’ve termed “Money 5” positions. An already talented team was able to secure three possible cornerstone pieces, with high pedigree, without spending any future capital.
In the NFL, most casual fans only focus on on-field performance. They worry very little about salary structure, cap economics and forecasting. Whether or not the Cowboys have the cap space to sign “Player X” right now, is normally the extent of their interest in Jerry Jones’ money roll. Well, save for rumored encounters with women of the night. However, the decision makers that place said players on the field, are all too concerned with the financial management aspect of things. They worry about what percentage of a salary cap is paid to a certain position, and which players are going to be more expensive than the ROI of their play dictates.
A few years ago, I coined the term “Money 5” to represent the five positions in the league which demand the highest salary compensation: Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Tackle, Edge Rusher and Cornerback. The majority of teams will have their highest-salary players play amongst these positions and as such, will need to weigh heavily how they approach the pipeline here. It is always a much better plan to pay wholesale prices rather than retail, and the wholesale opportunities only come in the draft. That’s why, even beyond getting three players with first-round pedigree, getting three players with that pedigree who play Money 5 positions is such a coup for Dallas.
If these players become upper echelon performers at their positions, Dallas will be in a tremendous position as far as their roster and their salary cap structure. They will have upper crust talent for bargain basement prices. Assume that in a normal career arc, players enter the prime of their careers in Year 3. Here’s a look at what Dallas will be paying each of the three in 2017, compared to where the average of the Top 10 Salaries at each position for 2015 are (courtesy of OverTheCap.com):
|Player||2017 Cap Hit||Avg Top 10 Position|
|*Byron Jones||$2.26m||$11.55 million|
|Randy Gregory||$1.04m||$11.8 million|
|La'el Collins||$623k||$6.24 million|
Should these players ascend to their projected heights, the savings Dallas will have on these positions will be monumental. Teams will often “go cheap” at certain positions in order to pay others. It’s a balancing act every team does, just with various thoughts as to which positions suffer for the chance to pay the “more important” ones. Having relatively cheap players at cornerstone positions means that teams can have premium depth, and pay to retain quality players at positions they normally wouldn’t be willing to spend the capital on. Players at positions like center and guard and defensive tackle. This in turn frees up the team to follow the unicorn and truly draft for Best Player Available (BPA) without concern of needing to fill holes.
It could even open them up to spend the requisite draft capital to secure a quarterback of the future. Moving up in the draft to select a targeted future replacement for Tony Romo becomes even more plausible as the cupboard is already stocked with top-tier young talent. A young star quarterback at wholesale prices leads to more opportunities to pay other positions and keeping a team together for a longer period. In this regard, if they pan out as planned, the 2015 draft class has set Dallas up for an extremely fruitful future.