Did the Dallas Cowboys Already Make Another Free Agent Mistake?


While there has been much dispute as to who won the NFL lockout of 2011, billionaires usually beat millionaires in games of chess. The players were able to keep the NFL schedule to 16 games, gained an enhanced plan for injuries to current players and more benefits for retired players, and have a more relaxed training schedule year round when compared to the prior CBA.  The owners were able to able to get a rookie wage scale, keep franchise and transition tags, and get a larger percentage of the overall revenue pie than was allowed under the prior CBA.

Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is sacked by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

What this has done is kept the salary cap relatively flat. For the 2013 NFL season, the cap has been projected at around $123 million, which is just about where it was in 2009. This offseason, we have seen numerous notable players cut and many contract restructures around the league. What this has done is lowered players cap number for the upcoming season, but caused the players future cap number to increase.  While this gets you under for the current year, this “borrow from Peter to pay Paul” strategy will catch up with teams (especially the Cowboys) due to poor cap management.

The Cowboys latest example of poor cap management and inability to read the market is the team’s decision to again apply the franchise tag to Anthony Spencer. While keeping Spencer in the fold is important, it is yet to be known what type of impact he can have as a defensive end in the 4-3. While being able to keep Spencer’s rights, the team has lost negotiating leverage as they have already guaranteed him over $10.5 million for the 2013 season. Here are some similar caliber players and the contracts they have received this offseason.

Paul Kruger – OLB                            5yrs        $41 million           $20 million guaranteed

Dannell Ellerbe – LB                        5yrs        $35 million           $14 million guaranteed

Cliff Avril – DE                                    2yrs        $13 million           $6 million guaranteed

Michael Bennett – DE                    1yr          $5 million

Elvis Dumervil – DE                          5yrs        $35 million           $11 million guaranteed

This decision to tag Spencer has hamstrung the team as to making any significant moves in free agency. The team signed low dollar contracts to Justin Durant (LB) and Will Allen (S) yesterday after restructuring Kyle Orton’s contract and releasing Anthony Armstrong.  The team has expressed that Allen is a better fit to the new defensive scheme than Michael Huff, who was the other safety they brought into Valley Ranch this past week. The team also feels that Matt Johnson can beat out Will Allen for the starting safety position, and he probably can, but I’m not really too sure how to feel about that since Johnson was injured all of last year in his rookie season. To not bring in Huff (who is from the Dallas area and wanted to play here) who signed a minimal 3 year/$6 million dollar contract with Baltimore is another poor move by Cowboys management.  The reason Huff was not signed was not about fit as they have stated, but was more about how they have so badly mismanaged their cap situation that they just couldn’t match his small deal.

By not gauging the market better and understanding how the new CBA has effectively wiped out the “middle class” of NFL players will continue to haunt this Cowboys team. With the middle class being “squeezed” by this CBA, the team needs to stop overpaying players and find cost effective solutions in the market to fill the holes on the roster.  Spencer and his agent were smart to quickly sign his franchise tag and lock in his guaranteed salary for 2013. With Spencer turning 30 in January, the team would be prudent to let Spencer hit the market next offseason and then match the going rate. Hopefully the teams goes this route instead of making another bad overpriced signing that further bogs down the team’s cap situation in the future since the team has lost negotiating leverage with Spencer this year.

Follow Craig Cortemeglia on Twitter at @ccortemegliaTLH