Every time someone writes about the moves the Dallas Cowboys can make this offseason the follow-up question usually has been “with what money?”. I embarked on a cap crusade with help from overthecap.com and the results were interesting.
Before we get into the breakdowns, there are a few ground rules everyone should know. The first is deal structuring. If Dak Prescott signs a five-year $200 million deal, it doesn’t necessarily mean Dak gets $40 million every season nor does $40 million of salary cap space get eaten up every season.
Second, players want their guaranteed money to be further along in their deals so that they can reach their non-guaranteed bonuses to maximize their earnings. Players can sometimes have a base salary that is guaranteed but roster or performance bonuses that aren’t guaranteed.
Lastly, there are countless ways the Cowboys can structure deals and the team has habitually built-in restructuring clauses in most of their high-priced deals just so the team can restructure to add salary cap space.
The team currently has roughly $18.4 million in cap space but the rumor going around is the cap will be set between the $180-$181 million range. That should boost the team’s cap space conservatively up to $23.4 million if it stays at $180 million up from the currently operated $175 million.
Whenever the next high-priced deal comes out, pay attention to the guaranteed money instead of the total money as that is what has to be paid to the player no matter what. Houston Texans defensive end signed a six-year $100 million contract with $51 million guaranteed. He is in the last year of his deal but the Texans can cut him and not have any salary cap ramifications as all of his guaranteed money has already been paid out.
So this is how the team can create cap space. Let’s take a look at wideout Amari Cooper. He signed a five-year, $100 million deal with $40 million guaranteed. The Cowboys fully guaranteed Cooper’s base salary and prorated bonus’ this past season and this upcoming season. After the 2022 season, Cooper can be released and the Cowboys would have zero salary cap ramifications to go along with it.
Critics scoffed at the Cooper deal but he actually did the Cowboys a favor by structuring this way. Cooper’s 2023 salary, in which he would only be 28 years old, is guaranteed on the fifth day of the new league year. If the Cowboys think he will still be worth the money after next season, the Cowboys can restructure his deal and create $14.2 million in cap space.
His 2023 base salary would still be $20 million but only $14.2 would be guaranteed. This is what people mean when they say kicking the can down the road. If the Cowboys intend to keep Cooper in 2023, this restructure is a no-brainer.
So who else can help the Cowboys with salary cap space and add to the pot? DeMarcus “Tank” Lawrence currently has the largest Cowboys deal and his guaranteed money runs out after this upcoming season. He does have guarantees if he is on the roster on certain early new league year dates. Tank will likely stay past this season so restructuring his deal also makes sense.
A Lawrence restructure doesn’t create as much as Cooper but his $11.9 million restructuring number oddly reflects what a decent defender (1Tech/FS) would hypothetically cost in free agency. That takes the Cowboy’s number up to $53 million in space.
Zack Martin’s restructure would create $7.4 million in cap space, Tyron Smith would add $7 million, Ezekiel Elliott could restructure to create $6.8 million, La’el Collins could create $5.6 million of space and Jaylon Smith would provide $4.9 million of cap relief. That pushes the number to $84.7 million conservatively as there are a few hundred thousand dollars that round this number up.
Now some of those players might not be restructure candidates due to their play but it is available to the team nonetheless. I can already hear the “no way, the Cowboys shouldn’t restructure that guy’s deal” which is debatable but not the point here.
If this is still not deemed enough, the Cowboys seem to have a favorite number of 920. Justin Hamilton, Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, and Deante Burton all have $920K base salaries with zero dead money hits. That amounts to an extra $3.6 million which pushes the total up to $88.3 million.
As far as releasing players, safety Darian Thompson could provide the Cowboys with $1.1 million but does have a $100K dead cap hit. Punter Chris Jones would give the Cowboys $2 million but has a larger $500K dead hit. Either way, that gets us to the final number of $91.4 million of cap space without releasing a key player.
Ok, maybe I was quick to say that is the final number as I’m sure the professionals that do this for a living can come up with many more ways to create space but when you hear salary cap restraints as a reason for not doing something, that is simply a kind way for teams to tell a player “no thank you”.
Pencil in $37.1 million dollars for Dak Prescott’s franchise tag or hypothetical deal and it still leaves the Dallas Cowboys with $54.3 million at their disposal. The team also has to account for their rookie draft class which should cost about $10 million so deduct that as well. The final number tells me the Cowboys will be players in this year’s first wave of free agency.