Cowboys Have Work to Do to Avoid Sinking ’15 Before it Starts
On Friday, it was announced that the Dallas Cowboys had decided to apply the franchise tag to their standout wide receiver, Dez Bryant.
This move brought to the forefront the concerns voiced by Jerry Jones during the NFL Scouting Combine just a week prior:
“We got a lot of money allocated to our offense right now. Nothing wrong with that because we can win with a lot of money allocated to our offense, but we’ve got to be aware that we want to improve our defense.”
During his statement, Jones specifically addressed the difficulties of retaining both of the Cowboys’ highly valued impending free agents, namely Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray.
“Dez is a player we want for the long term. And we want Murray for his career as well. The only reason to have any equivocation on that is that this is pro football, and we have limitations on what you can allocate to any position or allocate to your football team…”
Jones is absolutely correct. The era of reaping high-level performance for relatively modest paychecks is rapidly closing in Dallas.
Dez Bryant has just concluded his rookie contract, which amounted to around $12 million over five years.
In exchange, Bryant contributed 75 games played, 381 receptions, 5,424 yards receiving, and 56 touchdowns to the Cowboys.
If we assume that Bryant plays under the wide receiver franchise tag in 2015, which is currently estimated to be around $13 million, he’ll earn more this year than he did in the previous five combined.
It’s a near certainty in the world of sports that Dez Bryant won’t replicate his remarkable 56-touchdown feat this season.
Consequently, the Cowboys won’t enjoy anywhere near the same level of value they’ve been accustomed to over the past five years, no matter how outstanding Bryant’s performance may be.
If the Patriots had Tom Brady playing at Tony Romo’s cap level, Dez Bryant is the last guy on earth New England would pursue.
These are the harsh realities that define the typical trajectory of top NFL players: they excel at a high level throughout the majority of their rookie contracts, providing significant savings for the team.
However, once this period concludes, they often demand substantial portions of the team’s salary cap.
Winning in those initial ‘savings’ years is crucial because once the allocation increases, it becomes exceedingly difficult to make substantial offensive improvements unless you immediately strike gold with another young talent.
The most optimistic scenario is that you can maintain a similar overall offensive output as before, albeit at a higher cost.
However, this outcome is far from assured, as adjustments will likely need to be made to accommodate the new deal.
Put simply, in the current NFL salary cap system, when Bryant finally receives his well-deserved payday, significantly fewer resources will be available for other offensive assets.
It’s a well-known fact that the quarterback position commands the highest cap allocation in football.
The challenge arises in team cap management when you find yourself in a scenario where both the quarterback and their offensive weapons carry top-of-the-league cap hits.
As a fan, you hope your team avoids this territory at all costs. Statistically, it’s unwise to anticipate your team achieving anything of substantial significance when stuck in such a predicament.
Below is a breakdown of the highest quarterback cap hits for the upcoming season.
Here is the breakdown of the highest wide receiver cap hits for 2015.
Bryant’s tag figure of $13 million falls significantly below the $16-$20 million range that Bryant’s representatives would likely aim for in an ideal scenario comparable to the figures associated with Johnson & Johnson.
Jerry Jones’ apprehension is understandably fueled by the prospects of the new cost associated with a Dez Bryant franchise tag, coupled with a potential new deal for DeMarco Murray.
However, another equally substantial hit to the cap is the adjustment in Tony Romo’s current contract.
In 2015, Romo’s cap hit surged from approximately $11.8 million in the previous season to a staggering $27.8 million – a noteworthy increase of about $16 million in fresh cap expenditure.
Comparatively, Bryant’s tag figure of $13 million represents a new cap difference of “only” $10 million (based on his previous annual salary of $3 million).
Together, Romo and Bryant are introducing about $26 million in additional cap expenses for the Cowboys in 2015.
However, this influx doesn’t bring any new players into the fold. Simply allocating more funds to retain current assets doesn’t necessarily translate to an overall improvement in the NFL.
Failing to reach a more cap-friendly extension for Bryant in 2015 will present its cap challenges for the Cowboys.
However, the most immediate concern revolves around reducing Romo’s cap burden to a more manageable level.
Achieving this would demand a substantial upfront payment to restructure and spread Tony’s cap impact over forthcoming seasons.
Unfortunately for DeMarco Murray, whether Jerry Jones is willing to pursue this course of action is a more pressing issue for the team than Murray’s prospective deal.
Without a Romo restructure, the Cowboys may find themselves forced to forgo retaining Murray, potentially resulting in a downgrade at the running back position.
The following breakdown highlights the highest 1-2 cap hits on offense in the NFL, as well as the leaders in the 1-2-3 cap hit rankings.
It’s worth noting that Julian Edelman is listed as the second option in the second list, with a renegotiation with Danny Amendola appearing likely.
As it stands, the Cowboys are on track to claim the less-than-desirable title in 2015 for the most substantial (and constraining) 1-2 financial hit.
Given their current cap situation, it’s doubtful they’ll be able to make significant defensive improvements, making this “award” potentially the only accolade Big D achieves in the upcoming season.
Effective cap management is a field of play in its own right, which holds as much weight as the action on the field.
The Cowboys have been able to capitalize on cost savings in critical positions for several years, but now the time has come to address the accumulating expenses.
It’s not by chance that the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, find themselves far from the top spots in both lists above.
They have set the benchmark that every top team in the NFL now strives to emulate.
As things stand, the Patriots head into 2015 with a significant advantage even before a single game is played.
Given this perspective and Dallas’s inability to secure a more cap-friendly extension for Bryant over the last two seasons (similar to the early extension granted to Rob Gronkowski in 2012), I hold the view that making Bryant a priority in free agency might not have been the wisest move for the Cowboys.
If you have a quarterback with a substantial cap hit, it becomes challenging to afford a top-paid wide receiver while building a deep, balanced team.
A more prudent approach would be negotiating with Murray in a cap-friendlier role, such as in the running back position.
Imagine a scenario where the Patriots had Tom Brady carrying a cap figure akin to Tony Romo’s.
In such a situation, pursuing Dez Bryant would likely be low on New England’s list of priorities.
When you allocate a significant portion of your cap to the quarterback, a more effective team-building strategy might involve assembling a group of good-to-very-good wide receivers rather than investing heavily in one exceptional player.
The Patriots convincingly demonstrated this approach last season for those paying attention.
This is the new reality of the NFL. The Cowboys made commendable strides in fortifying their offensive line and running game in 2014.
However, all that progress may now be in jeopardy. It seems the Cowboys are poised to absorb a significant cap hit in their passing game, which could lead to a stagnation in overall team performance.
Savvy teams across the league will surely take note and strive to avoid repeating similar mistakes.