While no one can predict what happens when the lights go on and the curtain rises on an NFL season; it’s generally considered truth that the Dallas Cowboys defense is in for a rough 2014.
Recently, word has filtered down that the Detroit Lions might be looking to move defensive tackle Ndamakong Suh in a trade. As is always the case, he has been linked to the Cowboys. The club is definitely looking for help along the D-line, including Amobi Okoye's return from what CowboysHQ has been told is a sort of "brain fog'' (details here) is one of many small ways to help. But what about a huge helping of help?
Whether or not the Cowboys consider an expensive acquisition such as Suh is one question. That, and whether or not they could actually afford to bring him in, is what this exercise will answer.
Suh is in the final year of his contract and, due to multiple restructures, is scheduled to take up $22.4 million against the team’s cap. That’s over 1/6th of the club’s 2014 base salary cap of $133 million.
The Lions currently have under $300,000 in cap space, which means that NLTBE (not likely to be earned) incentives, in-season signings due to injury and the like will not be possible for the team as currently projected.
In addition, Suh is also going to cost the Lions just under $10 million against the 2015 cap, as restructure bonuses into a void year (he isn’t “really” under contract for 2015) have piled up. This is the true story of a team that has mismanaged their cap space.
Suh takes out a familiar Dallas foe. (Getty Images)
The Cowboys defensive struggles due to injury in 2013 have been well-documented, and the losses due to defection and injury for 2014 have been well-fretted. Those in attendance at training camp, the first preseason game against San Diego, or the joint practices with the Raiders have seen Dallas getting gashed relentlessly by runs straight up the gut.
Some journalists are saying this might be the most talent-deficient defense they’ve seen in Dallas since the late 1990’s. As such, many fans and media alike speculate as to whether or not the club can make any moves to have some semblance of a competitive season. Ndamakong Suh, for all of his discipline issues, could help this team on the field. But is it even financially feasible?
Dallas is currently $9.56 million under the 2014 salary cap; the 11th highest total in the league.
The offseason cap is calculated by the rule of the “Top 51”; there are 90 players on the roster, but only the Top 51 salaries count towards the salary cap. Teams will need to be under the salary cap with their final 53 man roster by September 3rd. There are mechanisms in the CBA that allow two veterans to count a minimum amount regardless of their base salary; so it will still be a relatively close balancing act.
Still though, they have to earmark cap space mentioned above that the Lions do not currently have. That effectively takes away about $3 million of that space, leaving Dallas at a rough estimate of $6.5 million of “spendable” space. Suspending the idea that Dallas has that space earmarked for an extension for Dez Bryant either this year or next (leftover cap space rolls over into the next year’s cap), here's a look at what it would take to get Suh in house.
Suh’s base salary for 2014 is $12.55 million; the other $9.74 million of his cap charge is in prorated bonus money that stays with the original team even if traded. Still, that’s almost double to amount of spendable money Dallas has, so, case closed. Not so fast my friends.
Dallas would have to sign Suh to an extension, and convert his base salary to signing bonus in order to facilitate the move. This extension would have to be agreed upon before any compensation was finalized between the two teams. Dallas, making a panic trade with the Detroit Lions for high draft picks and an extension to boot? Say it ain’t so, Roy Williams. Say it ain’t so.
As a fifth-year vet, the lowest Dallas could convert Suh’s base salary to would be $730,000. At a minimum, Dallas would need to convert the remaining $11.8 million into a prorated signing bonus. To maximize the amortization (allocation over multiple years), Dallas would have to give Suh an extra four years on the new deal ($2.36 million each year).
That would make Suh’s new cap hit: $730k (base) + $2.36 (prorated bonus) = $3.09 million. Very manageable should Dallas choose to give up Detroit’s required compensation.
Here’ the rub. Ndamakong Suh probably figures he can do much, much better than a $12.8 million signing bonus once he hits free agency in 2015. Suh was part of the last draft class before the rookie wage scale, and received $23m in full guarantees in his initial deal. Although this deal is still the current high-water mark for defensive tackles, one can expect Suh to demand more; especially from a team that is going to keep him off the open market bidding.
Ravens DT Haloti Ngata(Getty Images)
Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens signed a four-year extension that runs through 2015 with $27m guaranteed money. Suh would command something slightly higher than Ngata, who plays a DT position that doesn’t lend itself to large stat totals.
So what mechanisms would Dallas have to employ? Well, they could put together a package similar to what they gave Brandon Carr a few years ago. Carr was signed with a signing bonus of $10m, but with a fully guaranteed second year salary of over $14 million that was always intended to be converted to a second signing bonus.
Cowboys CB Brandon Carr(Getty Images)
After this season, Carr’s third with the team, Dallas will still have over $12.5 million of prorated bonus to account for in future caps. Not ideal should you want to move on from a player.
Another option is for Dallas to guarantee money, either as base salary or roster bonuses, that cannot be amortized into future cap hits. For all intents and purposes, this would be a big hit on the 2015 cap.
The problem there is that Dallas’ cap structure is more or less constructed to have room in 2016; money could still be very tight in 2015 unless other moves are made to shift costs around.
While Dallas has mechanisms in place to be able to meet the salary cap limits projected to 2015, adding the guaranteed salary it would take to satisfy Suh’s requirements are nearly impossible.
Cowboys DT Henry Melton(Getty Images)
Doug Free and Henry Melton could add up to $17m to the available space, however both might be resigned at cheaper rates. Dallas is going to resign Dez Bryant, they are likely goig to let DeMarco Murray walk and Bruce Carter will have to show and prove a lot to earn his big money. Guaranteed money in the $12m - $13m range severely handcuffs what Dallas will be capable of doing next offseason, prior to the June 1st date when a cut player can have his hit spread over two years.
Also, what would a trade for Suh do to the Henry Melton situation? Suh plays 1,2,3,5 or 7 tech, so it’s not a position issue… but it could be a commitment issue. Melton is on a one-year “prove it” deal and it’s unlikely Dallas would want to have two defensive tackles totaling over $20m in cap space in 2015.
Suh is a great player, he’s a former rookie of the year, three-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro. He’s also never played on a quality defense, so it is questionable how much impact he could truly have on the Cowboys dysfunctional defense.
Why would Dallas chose to mortgage their already limited future cap flexibility for a player that hasn’t previously been the best player on a good defense? A player that is in no way a guarantee to change this team’s defensive dynamics from moribound to hopeful?
In the light of the immediate, the trade isn’t a bad idea; but it makes very little sense in Dallas’ financial picture moving forward.
The rumors have circulated about Detroit's need to move on from Suh, and carryover the saved cap space to assist in their future years. However, Detroit has basically sold the idea to their fans that head coach Jim Schwartz was the problem and the roster was fine. It's a tough sell to do that if you trade away your second best player. That also leads to how much compensation Detroit would be looking to recoup, and fair market value. That's all a consideration before a phone call in either direction is taken seriously. While the NFL trade market has loosened a bit, there are no signs this is a deal that is imminent; indeed, CowboysHQ.com is told by the Cowboys that the finances, as we've explained them, are part of the reason they are barely aware of the internet rumor, let alone involved in talks. But there's always chatter.
So, to recap, the Cowboys can't afford to trade for Suh without offering him an extension and they don't have the significant space under either the 2014 cap or the 2015 cap to give Suh the guaranteed money he'd be looking for in an extension that would have to rival what he would see on the open market.