For the first time, possibly ever, the Dallas Cowboys will head into free agency without being salary-cap strapped.
The NFL projects the 2019 salary cap to be between $187 million and $191.1 million.
The true number will be determined once the league’s final revenue dollars are calculated.
It is usually on the high end.
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But based on a cap at $190 million, the Cowboys are projected to have roughly $50 million in cap space, when looking at the top 51 players already signed for next season and the $11.7 million in carryover from last season.
This was calculated.
Former quarterback Tony Romo’s dead money is finally off the books. The team absorbed all of former receiver Dez Bryant’s dead money on last year’s cap.
When asking a high ranking Cowboys source if they ever had that much salary cap room the response was, “Probably not! Young team. Going away quick.”
So what does all this mean?
Some guys (D-Law, Dak) are about to get paid
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence is the top priority. He is a free agent and the Cowboys have until March 5 to negotiate a new deal or place the $20.5 million franchise tag on him for 2019 and continue to negotiate.
Look for Lawrence to get a six-year deal averaging between $21 million and $23 million annually.
From there, the pecking order consists of quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, running back Ezekiel Elliott and possibly cornerback Byron Jones.
Prescott, the three-year starter and two-time Pro Bowler, is the 17th highest-paid player on the team with a 2019 salary of $2.045 million, largely due to performance bonuses. He is behind the likes of Jeff Heath, Allen Hurns, Chris Jones, Taco Charlton and Maliek Collins.
It is past time for him to get paid. And he will get full market value for a quarterback, starting at roughly $25 million annually. Book it.
Cooper is in the final year of his deal at $13.9 million. The Cowboys would like to extend him and reduce his cap figure. But it won’t come cheap, as the market value for the top receivers is $14 million to $18 million annually.
If the Cowboys take care of the others and don’t take care of Elliott, it’s going to be a problem and result in a possible holdout. He has two years left on his deal but he wants to get paid now while he is in his prime after leading the league in rushing two of his first three years. The Rams gave Todd Gurley a four-year, $60 million deal that includes $45 million in guarantees and a signing bonus of $20 million after three years.
Elliott wants his money now, too.
More cap space possible
The Cowboys can gain even more room, possibly upping their space to $60 million with some simple addition by subtraction. The Cowboys have already declined the option on receiver Terrance Williams’ contract, freeing up $2.25 million in cap space.
They could gain $5 million in space by doing the same with receiver Allen Hurns, who had a disappointing 20 receptions for 295 yards and two touchdowns last season before suffering a broken leg in the wild-card victory against the Seattle Seahawks. The Cowboys have to make the decision on Hurns by March 13.
A big chunk could be saved by moving on from linebacker Sean Lee as well. He missed six games in 2017 and nine games last year. He has been reduced to a backup role behind Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith and there is no guarantee he can be counted on for quality depth given his lack of availability due to injuries the past two seasons.
The Cowboys could save $7 million by making Lee a salary-cap casualty. What is certain is that he will get a reduction in salary or a release. But significant savings will be had.
And then there is linebacker Joe Thomas, who had 14 tackles in 10 games last season. If the Cowboys move on from Lee, he will be counted on for depth. If not, they could save $2 million by cutting him.
And this does not take into account the team potentially adding more room by possibly restructuring the contracts of center Travis Frederick or guard Zack Martin. Both have built-in adjustments.
What about Earl Thomas?
Owner Jerry Jones said the safety position will be discussed in free agency. So that means that Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas is back on the table after the Cowboys tried to trade a second-round pick for him last October.
Thomas, a former Texas Longhorns star, has made it known he would like to continue his career with the Cowboys. And with his former secondary coach in Seattle, Kris Richard, running the Cowboys defense, the interest is mutual and it’s a perfect fit.
The question is how much Thomas, who is coming off a broken leg, will want and whether Cowboys will get in a bidding war for the soon to be 30-year-old. When healthy, he is still one of the best safeties in the game, which could put his annual salary between $10 million and $13 million.
Another option at safety could be Landon Collins of the New York Giants. He is younger but he is more of a down-in-the-box strong safety than a ball-hawking free safety like Thomas.
The Cowboys’ top 10 salary cap hits for 2019
LT Tyron Smith: $15.5 million
RG Zack Martin: $14 million
WR Amari Cooper: $13.9 million
C Travis Frederick: $10.9 million
DL Tyrone Crawford: $10.1 million
LB Sean Lee: $10.075 million
RT La’el Collins: $9.9 million
RB Ezekiel Elliott: $7.9 million
CB Byron Jones: $6.2 million
CB Allen Hurns: $6.2 million