Death, Taxes and the Dallas Cowboys over the Salary Cap
By Matthew Postins
It’s become an annual ritual for the Dallas Cowboys. That is, shaving money off the salary cap.
The new NFL year begins in early March. By then the Cowboys must be under the presumed 2014 salary cap, which is going to be about $126-127 million (ESPNDallas.com is projecting $127.4 million, while Star-Telegram.com is projecting $126.3 million). The bad news is it won’t be easy. The Cowboys are, reportedly, anywhere from $22-25 million over the cap. We say about because, in the NFL world, numbers are never absolute. Salaries change frequently. So as we prepared this overview of the Cowboys’ cap woes, we consulted several sources, including Spotrac.com, Overthecap.com, the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, CBSSports.com and USAToday.com, to try and get an overall picture of where the Cowboys stand. There are variances. For instance, Spotrac.com’s and Overthecap.com’s estimates differ by about $2 million. Statistically, that’s well within the margin for error. For the sake of this exercise, the numbers used in this article are numbers we feel are generally correct and will only point out differences in cap figures if they are stark and have potential to change the Cowboys’ overall cap strategy.
Also note that since we’re in the offseason the number of salaries used to figure the cap overage changes. During the offseason only the Top 51 player salaries figure against the salary cap. During the regular season that changes to the Top 53 player salaries.
Finally, the Cowboys are out of the penalty box. After two straight seasons of losing $5 million in cap space due to NFL penalties incurred during the uncapped year of 2010.
So what does the Cowboys’ salary cap situation look like?
Cap overage: The Cowboys are approximately $22-25 million over the salary cap. Spotrac.com and Star-Telegram.com report $22 million, while ESPNDallas.com reports approximately $25 million. But that figure is just to get UNDER the cap for 2014. That doesn’t include money to sign free agents or draft picks. For instance, each team has a pool of money it uses to sign draft picks. Last year the Cowboys’ rookie draft pool was approximately $4.5 million in first-year salary, according to OvertheCap.com. We won’t know the rookie pool numbers for another month or so. But count on that being at least $5 million. So, in truth, when you consider the Cowboys need to sign free agents, as well, they really need to shave about $35 million in cap room. The Cowboys’ cap overage is the worst in the NFL.
Dead money. This is what the NFL calls money that must be counted toward the cap, even though a player has been cut before the end of their contract. The Cowboys have significant dead money issues in 2014 as they carry nearly $12 million in player costs for players no longer on the roster. The largest chunk of that is taken by Jay Ratliff’s contract, for which the Cowboys must account for $6.928 million. Three other players count more than $1 million in dead money – guard Nate Livings ($2.1 million), defensive tackle Marcus Spears ($1.4 million) and defensive tackle Sean Lissemore ($1.2 million).
The top salary? As you might expect that figure belongs to quarterback Tony Romo, whose massive $108 million contract extension kicks in this season. Romo’s base salary jumps from $1.5 million in 2013 to $13.5 million in 2014, not to mention his $8.2 million in pro-rated bonus money. Romo’s total cap figure for 2014 stands at $21.7 million, making his 2014 cap figure the second-largest in the NFL among quarterbacks, behind only Chicago’s Jay Cutler ($22.5 million). Neither has played in a Super Bowl.
The $10 million club. Romo is one of three players on the team that counts for at least $10 million in cap space. The other two are defensive end DeMarcus Ware ($16 million) and cornerback Brandon Carr ($12.2 million). More than $19 million of that is in base salary owed for the 2014 season.
The rest of the Top 10. The next seven cap hits on the Cowboys belong to: tight end Jason Witten ($8.4 million), wide receiver Miles Austin ($8.2 million), linebacker Sean Lee ($7.5 million), cornerback Orlando Scandrick ($6.6 million), tackle Doug Free ($6.5 million), cornerback Morris Claiborne ($4.4 million) and quarterback Kyle Orton ($4.3 million).
Hits that would surprise you. Right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau’s cap hit from 2013 to 2014 jumps by $2 million ($4.074 million). That makes his cap hit the second-largest of the five starting offensive linemen, though left tackle Tyron Smith ($3.976 million) isn’t too far behind. Tackle Jermey Parnell and center Phil Costa barely played in 2013 but count more than $3.5 million in cap space. Tight end Gavin Escobar, a second-round pick last year, eats up nearly $1 million in cap space in 2014, despite falling well short of expectations.
The bargains. Given his level of play, safety Barry Church’s $1.5 million cap hit is a bargain, as his cap hit the largest among the team’s safeties. Running back DeMarco Murray is coming off a career year and entering the last year of his contract, which will count less than $1 million in cap space. Defensive end George Selvie is set to make $730,000 in 2014 and he probably outplayed that money last year. If second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman progresses and can outplay Justin Durant for the strong-side linebacker role, his cap hit is less than $600,000. But no player is a bigger bargain than left guard Ron Leary, who started all 16 games last year and will count $495,000 against next year’s salary cap.
No. 51. The final player to count against the Cowboys’ cap right now? Take your pick, as there are three players that make $495,000 if they make the 2014 roster – guard Jeff Olson, Leary and linebacker Cameron Lawrence.
Next: The five players the Cowboys should extend.