Cash rules everything around me, cream get the money… but who’s getting the dollar bills is just as important as ‘how many’ in today’s NFL.
Every NFL team strives to achieve what they believe is the perfect balance of talent and cap space. Unlike baseball, where the ceiling is as high as the depths of the owner’s pockets, the amount of spending a football team can do to construct their roster is limited. The salary cap attempts to put each of the 32 teams on equal footing in their chase for the Lombardi by using a universal salary cap. Each year, based on a percentage of league revenue, a salary cap is determined and teams are not allowed to surpass that total on salaries. Salaries come in three parts, base salary + single year bonuses, allocated signing bonuses that are spread evenly over portions of the contract, and incentive clauses.
Teams build rosters not only on talent acquisition, but also on a philosophy of which positions deserve more financial attention. The Money 5, as we like to call it, are usually the Top 5 highest earning positions across the league: Quarterback, Left Tackle, Cornerback, Wide Receiver and Edge Rusher. Not every team will have those positions at the top of their financial statements, and beyond those some will have elite players at other positions. The configuration of how each position group is allocated a percentage of cap space is something that every front office spends an inordinate amount of time deciding.
Here, with substantial help from our good friends at OverTheCap.com (one of the few sites the advanced fan must have bookmarked), we will take a look at the cap composition of the 2015 Cowboys as compared to the Super Bowl champions of the last 20+ seasons. We will compare how Dallas has built their current squad with the expectation of a title run, and contrast it to how previous winners have done so. OTC hasn’t included the 2014 New England Patriots in their analysis as of yet, so we will do the computations ourselves. Each of these articles we link to has a gluttony of additional spending breakdowns involved, so we highly recommend heading over there once finished here. Each of the graphics will lead to OTC when clicked upon.
We will take a few liberties and assume that Greg Hardy will play in 10 games and that Dez Bryant will play the season under the franchise tag; neither are anywhere near certainties. Other than those assumptions, all other comparisons will be based on the players’ current cap hits that include LTBE (likely to be earned) incentive clauses.
Here’s a look at the Top 5 Cowboys salaries for 2015:
|Player||Cap Hold (in millions)||% Of 2015 Cap|
|Tony Romo, QB||$14.973||10.12|
|Dez Bryant, WR||$12.823||8.66|
|Brandon Carr, CB||$12.717||8.59|
|Jason Witten, TE||$8.512||5.75|
|Sean Lee, LB||$5.450||3.68|
The Cowboys still appear to be a bit of a top-heavy roster, albeit still within the range of teams that have secured the Lombardi. The only Super Bowl champions who had a higher percentage of their cap tied into their Top 5 players is the 2002 Buccaneers and the 94 49ers. Both were veteran-laden rosters at the end of their championship caliber runs, meanwhile the Cowboys have a mixture of vets and players on rookie deals. Dallas is currently in the midst of a second wind when it comes to their championship aspirations
One could look to a possible reduction in Brandon Carr’s salary to lessen the burden, but Greg Hardy sits right on the outside of this list and will knock off Sean Lee if his suspension is reduced by just one game, much less the four most fans are hoping for. Despite the hopes of some, the transition to a more balanced roster still hasn’t been fully achieved.
|Player||Cap Hold (in millions)||% of 2015 Cap|
|Tony Romo, QB||$14.973||10.12%|
|Dez Bryant, WR||$12.823||8.66%|
|Brandon Carr, CB||$12.717||8.59%|
|Jason Witten, TE||$8.512||5.75%|
|Sean Lee, LB||$5.450||3.68%|
|Morris Claiborne, CB||$5.175||3.50%|
|Greg Hardy, DE||$5.045||3.41%|
|Tyron Smith, OT||$5.039||3.40%|
|Orlando Scandrick, CB||$4.382||2.96%|
|Barry Church, S||$3.250||2.20%|
Here, the picture improves significantly for Dallas. They are still above average, but not there are 6 of 18 Super Bowl champions who have a higher percentage of their salary cap expense used on their Top 10 Paid players.
It gets very interesting here when looking at the factors that are in play for the 2015 Cowboys. As Jason noted, teams that win Super Bowls are teams that have expensive quarterbacks. Save for the Seahawks winning on Russell Wilson’s rookie deal and the Brad Johnson Bucs, this has to happen. If you want more evidence the Cowboys deal with Tony Romo is fair, look no further than the extensions given to inferior quarterbacks since he inked his deal; Romo now ranks 10th in average salary for a quarterback in the league.
A closer look reveals that yes, despite the contention from many about championship teams not having top-tier receivers, there the position is, neck and neck with offensive tackle in the number of guys who ranked in their team’s Top 5 highest salaries.
Finally, notice the note’s take on the running back position. It’s grouped in with other positions long thought to be unworthy of top money. Again, this isn’t a recent trend, it goes back through 21 years of Super Bowl Champions. Championship teams rarely allocate a Top 5 salary to a running back.
On the flip side, the majority of linebackers included here are actually edge rushers for 3-4 teams. With that in mind, Dallas is paying a Top 5 salary to two positions that aren’t normally included, linebacker and tight end. Now, the tight end is Hall-of-Fame worthy, and if a team is going to spend above the norm on a “fringe” position, that is the exact player you do so for. This leaves Sean Lee’s contract as the outlier here, as injury has prevented him from contributing seasons on par with his compensation.