How Dallas Cowboys can clear cap space to be buyers in free agency

Aug 21, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallasy Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with son Stephen Jones before a preseason NFL game against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 21, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallasy Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with son Stephen Jones before a preseason NFL game against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

After yet another year of playoff disappointment, the Dallas Cowboys once again find themselves back at the drawing board. The biggest question and main focus inside this organization should be obvious…How can we get this team over the hump and finally be the last team standing when February 2023 rolls around?

The Cowboys are certainly not barren when it comes to talent. If you read my recent work regarding the quarterback, it’s clear that Dallas has a top-tier quarterback in Dak Prescott. Prescott has weapons surrounding him both at running back and receiver, along with arguably the best interior offensive linemen in all of football in Zack Martin. Defensively, the line played really well this year, while rookie linebacker Micah Parsons and second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs were both named to first-team All-Pro in 2021.

There are key pieces to victory in the building. Dallas will also get a host of draft picks this year. Landing guys like Parsons and Diggs in back-to-back years is nothing new for this organization. Thanks to vice president of player personnel Will McClay and scouting coordinator Chris Hall, Dallas routinely hits on their first and second-round selections and finds a late-round gem more often than not.

The Cowboys were also able to bring back both the offensive and defensive coordinators despite both interviewing with several teams for head coaching gigs elsewhere. Dallas returns an offensive coordinator who presided over the league’s top offense in 2021 and a defensive coordinator whose group led the league in takeaways last season. The head coach has a Super Bowl trophy to his credit and has the fifth-most wins in his career amongst active head coaches.

The Dallas Cowboys have plenty of talent on the roster and in the coaching staff, so how do they go further next year? What offseason moves do they need to make?

All of this leaves just one avenue in which to make this team better…free agency. Earlier this week, I touched upon the in-house free agents Dallas needs to focus on retaining. Plus, there is a much deeper pool of leaguewide options from which to choose.

Now, there are multiple reasons to not expect much when it comes to the Cowboys and “big game hunting.” For one, it’s just not their culture. For another, they have a few guys in the building that they need to figure out how to retain. Lastly, they are kind of in a pickle when it comes to finances. Currently, the Cowboys are $21 million over the expected salary cap of approximately $208M in 2022. Only two other teams are starting off from a worse position than Dallas.

Thankfully, there are a few quick and easy fixes to help change that number from really negative to something that any team would be able to use to their advantage. First and foremost, Dallas can restructure a few of their current deals to get out of a hole. By converting the player’s cap number into a prorated signing bonus (all numbers used below are from Over The Cap), a restructure gives the Cowboys wiggle room to spend money on other guys. This is a tactic you only want to do for guys you are pretty sure will see the end of their deals.

Prescott ($14.4M), Martin ($8.3M), and offensive lineman La’el Collins ($5.2M) all seem like safe choices which, by proxy, would immediately move Dallas out of the negative. They have already set a restructure for Prescott’s contract.

A deeper look into players the Cowboys can cut in order to help them get back to the plus side in terms of cap space

Left tackle Tyron Smith ($4.0M) seems risky at first glance given his recent injury history, but a deeper dive into his contract reveals he only has three years left on his deal. His situation doesn’t really provide much relief in the way of dead cap space if Dallas were to cut ties with the future Hall of Famer. Because of this, I’m okay with adding him to the list.

The tougher calls are defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and receiver Amari Cooper. The Cowboys can go a lot of different ways with both players, and both have been rumored to be potential cap casualties.

The team has “outs” on both of their deals this year. Cutting Lawrence would put almost $20M towards that dead cap mentioned above. Such a move would be no help to the Cowboys cap. A restructure, however, would give Dallas almost $12M in cap space but essentially lock them into three more years at $60M total.

Cutting Cooper, however, would only put $6M towards the dead cap in 2022. It would also help Dallas gain $14M towards free-agent spending. If you’re keener on keeping Coop, a restructure would still net Dallas $12.6M but also almost certainly mean he’s staying around for three more years at $60M total as well.

Personally, I would leave Lawrence alone. As for Cooper, rumors have swirled about possibly trading him. Dallas has other issues at receiver with Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, and Malik Turner all hitting the market this year. The Cowboys cannot go into next season with just CeeDee Lamb and flotsam at that position, especially since they will very likely also lose tight end Dalton Schultz in free agency too.

If Dallas were to get some “wink, wink” assurance from all three other free agents, I’m fine with getting $14M towards the cap and cutting Coop. Otherwise, I’d leave him alone as well.

Lastly, Dallas can get up to another $12M in cap space by cutting cornerback Anthony Brown, tight end Blake Jarwin, and kicker Greg Zuerlein. Doing these things would essentially mean the following:

  • The Cowboys are ready for the other outside corner to be Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, or (insert free agent/draft pick here).
  • The Cowboys would be comfortable using a day two pick on a tight end and love the Scott McKeon/Jeremy Sprinkle combo as backups.
  • The Cowboys are definitely down to do something smart like draft a kicker like Cincinnati did this past year which seems to have worked quite well.

So, if you’re scoring at home, Dallas is currently at -$21M but can easily get to the same number on the plus side with restructures of Prescott, Martin, Collins, and Smith and three easy cuts.

Another $12-14M is potentially in play if you either really like Cooper or are really ready to move on from him. Lastly, another $12M is there if you’re all-in on Lawrence. Will the Cowboys stop playing it safe and go for broke in the fashion of this year’s Super Bowl-winning Los Angeles Rams or will they continue to grind and hope things will get better by some other method? Only time will tell…

Next. 4 Super Bowl free agents for the Cowboys to consider. dark