The Dallas Cowboys have spent the last four off-seasons trying to solve the conundrum of their pass rush on defense. There was the release of DeMarcus Ware because of declining health and increasing costs (and now the resurfacing of D-Ware's name.) There was the drafting of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Ben Gardner, Ryan Russell, Maliek Collins, and Charles Tapper. There was the signing of free agents like Benson Mayowa, Jeremy Mincey, and the failed experiment of trying to get elite production at a discount by taking on Greg Hardy.
Indisputably, Dallas has made efforts to improve the crater in their roster along the defensive line.
The strongest commitment? The one they made in September 2015 to a fourth-year player who had missed his entire second year with an injury, and one coming off his first at a new position. They signed Tyrone Crawford to a five year, $45-million contract with $17.4 million guaranteed. At $9 million per season, Crawford’s average salary placed him on a level only slightly below the elite defensive tackle tier where players like Geno Atkins, Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh sit. ... but well above the second tier, where Linval Joseph, Sen’derrick Marks and others reside.
This was another of Dallas’ favorite types of moves, where the Cowboys attempt to sign a player they hope can be elite at a deal just below top-tier money before he reaches free agency, giving the player long-term security while the team keeps the upside.
Crawford fit this mold as a player who had spent 2014 at a new position, switching mid-season from defensive end to the extremely important under-tackle position in Rod Marinelli’s defense, the position once manned by Warren Sapp in Tampa Bay and Henry Melton in Chicago. Crawford produced three sacks in his rotational role (shared with Melton when he came to Dallas), and showed significant promise as a long-term difference-maker on the Dallas defensive front.
However, in 2015, the first under his new deal, Crawford suffered a serious shoulder injury in Week 2, which didn’t prevent him from suiting up, but certainly impacted his effectiveness. (He told our Mike Fisher he literally couldn't brush his teeth using that arm.) In spite of that injury, Crawford posted a career-high five sacks, and after off-season surgery, Crawford appeared poised to be the cornerstone the team hoped he would be.
In early 2016 the Cowboys’ depth chart at end was depleted by injury and suspension, forcing Crawford to move back to defensive end. In Crawford's time outside, rookie Maliek Collins stepped in at the under-tackle, and played extremely well, causing Crawford to be outside more permanently. But another shoulder injury (which requred another off-season surgery) reduced Tyrone's workload for the last few weeks of the season, and he out of the lineup entirely for the last two weeks. In that period of time, second-year player David Irving posted three sacks and seven tackles in the final three games, numbers which, when projected over a full season easily out-pace Crawford’s production from any season in his career.
And so the rumors start. Or maybe it'd be better to term them "smart speculation,'' because a Cowboys observer with a knowledge of how the cap works, and of "bang-for-your-buck,'' has reason to wonder if Crawford is worth $9 million ... or even if Crawford should be a cap casualty altogether. (Click here for "Cowboys Offseason Blueprint, Part 1: Navigating 'Cap Hell.'')
The problem with the Cowboys' strategy of signing players early is that sometimes the player winds up being hurt twice in two years after the deal, while being out-performed by a third-round rookie at his primary position, and a former undrafted free agent at his other potential position, and you wind up paying $9 million a year to a guy who is no longer one of your four best defensive linemen.
If Dallas were to decide that the injuries and inconsistent performance were too much, and it released Crawford, they could do so with a June 1 designation, opening up $7.25 million in cap space in 2017, while accelerating $7.3 million to the 2018 cap as “dead money.'' That money would not be available until June 2, but it would be enough to sign the Cowboys 2017 draft class, as well as provide the slush-fund-type money the team will need during the year for practice-squad players, injury replacements and the like.
Considering the $19.5 million of 2018 cap space that will wind up being opened up with the likely release/trade/retirement of Tony Romo, a potential Crawford release could be considered a way to roll some of that space forward into 2017, to help the team take further advantage of the window of opportunity associated with having a starting quarterback on a fourth-round rookie contract.
But ... Dallas isn't planning to do this.
A source inside The Star in Frisco, when presented with these numbers, responded to CowboysHQ.com by saying that "it doesn't make financial sense or football sense'' to cut Crawford.
This shouldn’t be a shock considering how highly they regard Crawford as a player on the field (they did give him $9 million a year to play a key position!) and as a man/member of the locker room. Crawford is a tough guy, a good guy, and a part of the players council that developed the 2016 team’s Players Creed. (Read that fascinating story by clicking here.) He's a leader and he's a "Right Kind Of Guy'' model for how coach Jason Garrett wants his players to handle their business.
So we handle the rumor and we gather the facts ... and we hope the Dallas Cowboys are $9 million worth of "correct'' on Tyrone Crawford.