Dallas Cowboys: Draft Success Offsets Salary Cap Woes


Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) on the field before the game against the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have been relatively successful in the draft the last few years with the selection of good to outstanding players such as Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, Dwayne Harris, Tyron Smith, James Hanna and Morris Claiborne.  But, lack of draft success in the years preceding these excellent selections is the reason for current issues the Cowboys have with the salary cap.

And once they get into that trap it’s hard to get out of it, because the team has to continue to extend contracts of some of the higher salaried players to years beyond what they can realistically play, in order to get under the cap enough to pay current and drafted players.  Once it’s time to part ways with these players, there is inevitably a chunk of guaranteed money that is still owed to them and counts against the cap, even though they are no longer with the team.

So, once a team gets into this trap, it takes time and a commitment to improving the team through the draft to get out of it.  The Cowboys paid dearly for not finding a replacement for Terrence Newman in the draft.  And previous failures in the draft caused Newman to be one of those players that counted against the cap after he was gone.  It certainly appeared to be time to part ways with Newman, but the result was signing Brandon Carr to a $50 Million contract.

Perhaps it would be better if free agency were after the draft instead of before, because once the Cowboys found a way to select Claiborne, they might have been able to rely on Mike Jenkins on one side of the defense and Claiborne on the other.  But I suspect Jenkins sealed his fate with the team with his lack of effort in the final days of the Wade Phillips era.   Realistically though, I do think that a free agency period after the draft makes more sense, because the team can go after needs they didn’t take care in the draft, instead of filling a need before the draft and then finding the player they wanted for that position in the draft.

Dec. 4, 2011; Glendale, AZ, USA; Dallas Cowboys tackle Doug Free against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Cowboys did not go after the more expensive free agent offensive lineman in 2012, they did have to pay much more than what a drafted rookie would have cost with the ones they did sign.  And the result was an abject failure, as the offensive line performed terribly.  Count among those failures the signing of Doug Free to a lucrative long term contract to keep him from going elsewhere as a free agent.  The Cowboys will now likely cut him and, once again, take a hit against the cap for guaranteed money that remains.

There is hope though, since the Cowboys appear to have their act together when it comes to the draft, and their ability to find and sign very good players that weren’t drafted is second to none.  There is reason for optimism in particular with this upcoming draft, because it is very heavy with good players at positions the Cowboys are in the most need of to upgrade the offensive and defensive lines.  I don’t believe we will see the Cowboys make a trade to move up in the draft this year.  The more likely scenario in such a lineman rich draft is for them to make a trade to move down in the draft, in order to secure more selections.

So, say what you will about who calls the plays and runs the offense.  Say what you will about new coaches versus the ones they replaced.  And say what you will about how quickly the defense can learn to play the 4-3 defense and whether the Cowboys have the right guys for it.  It all starts with players and the upcoming draft will tell us a lot about where this team is headed in 2013.

And on the issue of drafting an eventual successor to Tony Romo at quarterback, the Cowboys need to save that pick for a lineman or running back.  With Tony Romo about to sign a long term extension and with Kyle Orton in place as his backup, selecting a quarterback this year would be a total waste.  Likewise, the successor to Felix Jones needs to be drafted, not signed as a more expensive free agent.

A disciplined approach today will pay big dividends tomorrow.