How a team maneuvers through free agency is dictated by their approach towards, and flexibility within the salary cap. Some teams, like the Cowboys, prefer to operate near the cap limit on an annual basis. Dallas isn’t a team in dire financial straits, and feels the best approach is to max out on expenditures. The change to the CBA in 2011, allowing teams to rollover unused cap space has altered this approach some, but Dallas is still expected to flirt with the cap ceiling annually, and 2016 should be no different.
Expected NFL Salary Cap: $153 million
In December, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the league told teams to expect a salary cap of between $150 and $153 million. Since last May, CowboysHQ has operated under the assumption the cap would be at least $153 million, up from $143m in 2014. Since then, the league has agreed to the financial bonanza-inducing move of the St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles. We fully expect $153m to now be the minimum level.
Expected Cowboys 2015 Cap Carryover: Approx. $4 million
According to the NFLPA Public Salary Cap Report, Dallas ended the 2015 season with $3.57m left in cap space. That will be slightly altered by the adjustments for incentives that were built into the contracts. These include stat achievements, playing time levels and post-season award bonuses. There are two types of incentives.
First, likely-to-be-earned (LTBE) are benchmarks the player reached the previous season. These are included in the salary cap before the season starts. Not-likely-to-be-earned (NLTBE) are benchmarks the player didn’t reach the previous year, and are added to the cap (if earned) following the season. With such a down year for Dallas, we expect the heavier incentives to be unreached for several players and additional cap space to be earned for the Cowboys.
Current Cowboys “Top 51” 2016 Cap Commitment: Approx. $145 million
The “Top 51” rule means that to start the league year, teams are only held responsible for the cap charges of the Top 51 expensive cap hits. Roster sizes are increased to 90 players, and the Cowboys currently have 61 players under contract for 2016. In addition to the Top 51, players who were released from the team in 2015 (either offseason as “June 1st” or during the season) and had signing bonus money allocated to 2016 and beyond caps, have dead money. For Dallas, they enter the offseason with less than a million in dead money ($901,076). That’s a far cry from previous years and indicates a shift in Dallas’ financial management. That’s not to say Dallas won’t add to the total with cuts this offseason; they most definitely will. Per OverTheCap.com’s calculations, those totals bring Dallas’ current commitment to the above level.
Expected Cowboys Space To Start 2016: Approx. $12 million
With an expected cap of $153 million, $145 million committed to 2016 and rolling over approximately $4m in additional space from 2015, Dallas has an acceptable amount of room to make moves once the league year starts. It is unlikely, however, this is all they have to play with.
Potential Cap Space To Be Added: Up To $35.8 million
Dallas, as always, will decide which players aren’t worth the money they are scheduled to be paid in 2016. These players can either be released, released as June 1st cuts or have their salaries reduced. And as always, the Cowboys will also have the ability to restructure other deals to create additional cap space. It has been bandied about Dallas actually writes these contingencies into their contracts with star players. Here’s a list of players who may fall into either of these categories, and what Dallas stands to save. Please note, we are using OverTheCap.com's salary numbers here. If there are any discrepancies we will adjust accordingly.
|Player||2016 Cap Hit||2016 Base Salary||Adjustment Type||Sgstd New '16 Base||Cap Savings|
|Brandon Carr||$13,817,000||$9,100,000||June 1st Release||$0||$9,100,000|
Brandon Carr: Carr hasn’t had an interception in two years. Releasing him as a June 1st casualty will save his entire base salary of $9.1m in 2016. He has a voidable year in 2017 (fictional, only there to spread signing bonus around) and will have a dead money hit of $2.717m that was there already.
Jason Witten: Witten led Dallas in catches in 2015, but is probably no longer an upper echelon tight end. A restructure with a voidable year that converts his 2016 base salary into signing bonus and reduces his 2017 base salary is in order. A restructure of $5.5m over three years would give Dallas the above noted savings of $3.67m.
Dez Bryant: Bryant’s deal seems to be built-in with the trigger, question is if Dallas will choose to pull it. His 2015 season was ruined by the unnecessary holdout (CowboysHQ predicted $14m per year over a year ago) but it must bring into question whether he’ll see the end of the deal. That in turns questions whether a restructure is ideal. Reducing Dez to league minimum base would prorate $8.24m over five years ($1.648m per). $1.648m (restructure bonus)+ $.760m (new base salary) + $4m (signing bonus) = $6.4m cap hit instead of $13m.
Tyron Smith: Not that much of a concern here. Smith is underpaid for his skill and position and there’s plenty of wiggle room to keep his cap number from going above market value in future seasons.
Barry Church: Simply isn’t worth the high price tag.
Tyrone Crawford: I highly advised going above $4m a year for an unproven Crawford and he spent the year playing injured. His entire 2016 salary was already guaranteed though, so moving money from year to year might make plenty sense for the number’s guys in the organization.
Notice how Tony Romo’s contract is not included in this list. Based on Romo’s age and injury history, they simply must stop using his contract to create space. No matter how many years they claim to believe he still has left, they don’t need to condemn their future cap based on that pipe dream.
In our next Cap Look, we’ll identify the in-house free agent players Dallas might want to resign and what they’ll cost.