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Thread: Sturm: Examining the Cowboys’ salary cap approach in the Dak window

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    One-armed Knife Sharpener Iamtdg's Avatar
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    Sturm: Examining the Cowboys’ salary cap approach in the Dak window

    Examining the Cowboys’ salary cap approach in the Dak window





    By Bob Sturm Jun 21, 2018


    After​ signing​ Zack Martin to​ a new 6-year, $84 million deal​ that will likely keep him in a Cowboys uniform for​​ the balance of his career (the end of the 2024 season), the Cowboys can now continue to lay out their immediate future with regards to one of the most complex activities of any organization: Staying on top of their financial picture in a way that allows flexibility and the ability to build a sustainable roster in a sport that requires it.

    Each league has its own financial model and the complexities of the NFL system requires plenty of time, spreadsheets, and projections about how the puzzle all fits together in perfect harmony. Critics will often suggest that the Cowboys have walked this tightrope poorly since the salary cap was brought into the sport back in the 1990s, whereas loyalists will defend them and say “Jerry always gets the deal done.”

    Clearly, both sides have evidence on their side as the Cowboys always do seem to get the big deals done and keep their star players – and at the same time, those star players generally seem to be part of an extremely top-heavy group; a group that lacks the depth to consistently win enough down the stretch of the regular season, costing themselves chances to go all the way. Often someone gets hurt – Sean Lee or Tyron Smith, for instance – and the roster collapses like a house of cards. In the NBA, you can pay a few guys your entire cap because basketball players seem to stay healthy and available to their teams more often. But, in this sport, where collisions are part of a normal week’s work, this is an incredibly risky approach. If your stars become unavailable or just ineffective, you often have a real mess on your hands.

    Presently Dallas is in what has been called the “Dak window.” The Cowboys’ QB appears plenty competent but also performs at the incredible value of $680,000 a year. In other words, on payday, linebacker Damien Wilson makes more than the starting QB of a team that has won 22 of 32 games since he took over the reins. This ability to have your QB help you win games and essentially play for nothing (by NFL standards) in a league where top QBs make between $1 million and $2 million PER GAME gives the Cowboys flexibility to assemble a roster around him that should overflow with quality.

    The QB window premise was the explanation for Seattle’s run before they had to give third-round QB Russell Wilson his mega-deal in 2015. Before that, in 2012-2014, the Seahawks paid him a total of $1.5 million for 3 full seasons that included two Super Bowl trips and one Lombardi Trophy.

    In 2018, the NFL Salary Cap will be $177 million. If you were to divide that equally through a 53-man roster, you would have over $3.3 million to spend on each player. Of course, nobody would ever do that for a number of obvious reasons, so now the exercises the Cowboys are going through with regards to splitting up a $177 million pie is the same as every team in the league. How do we come to deals with our top players in a way that allows competitive balance up and down the roster, while saving room for the next wave of players who need new deals when their rookie contracts expire?

    Here are the Top 10 contracts currently on the Cowboys books in “Annual Average Value” according to Spotrac.com:



    As you can see, this list does not include a single skill player until WR Tavon Austin who will make substantially less than his $7 million total from the Cowboys. Most of Dallas’ “elite” money is tied up in the trenches. That, of course, is highly dissimilar to many situations around the league.

    In fact, right now, there is plenty of drama in Pittsburgh where Le’Veon Bell’s contract continues to be the main focus and his dissatisfaction with playing under the franchise tag seems to send the message that he will never receive a contract akin to those signed by WR Antonio Brown or QB Ben Roethlisberger. A subjective conversation can be had debating which of those three players is the biggest reason why the Steelers are contenders every year. They are in the middle of “go for it” time. But the bottom line is they are spending nearly $22 million on the QB, $17 million on their top WR, and nearly $15 million on the RB. That adds up to about $54 million of the $177 million pie – and at least two of the stars think they need better contracts. $54 million is already over 30% of the cap, so when we discuss top-heavy rosters, you can definitely see how paying three guys about 10% each of the pie and leaving 70% of the money for the other 50 players can cause some stress.

    It doesn’t end there, of course. The Steelers also pay David DeCastro big money ($10 million per year) to play guard. They have built a fine defense and Stephon Tuitt makes $12 million over on that side. You can quickly see, without even including other big deals on the team, that the top five contracts in Pittsburgh take up around $75 million per season. While that seems top-heavy, there are other rosters who invest even more in their “Top 5” groups:



    Hopefully, that graph demonstrates the challenges of the salary cap. Each of those top 10 teams in this ranking is paying a QB, led by Minnesota with Kirk Cousins and his huge new deal. The Cowboys are in great shape right now with their cap – ranked 23rd in the “Top 5 Players” category, but they are also in the group that doesn’t have to pay a QB (yet). This should signal an aggressive attitude to take advantage of this rare situation; a scenario in which they have the ability to do what the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles are clearly doing – go for it.

    The Rams situation is one that reminds us quite a bit of the early Seahawks runs. Seattle’s roster had cheap elite talent from the draft on rookie deals which allowed them to add some veterans on shorter deals to coincide with the timing and really make a run at things right now. The Rams’ top 5 cap hits in 2018 include Ndamukong Suh, Lamarcus Joyner, Andre Whitworth, Michael Brockers, and Aqib Talib for a total of well under $60m. This means they can assemble plenty of quality players around Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Todd Gurley. Donald needs a massive deal that will look a lot like Fletcher Cox’s contract, but for now, the Rams have space and a roster that looks ready to win right now.

    The Eagles just won the Super Bowl with another salary situation – like the team they played in New England – that is not top-heavy, but distributed between many players. They have added Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to their defensive line in hopes of defending that crown. They won’t be able to compete for long before Carson Wentz makes Jimmy Garropolo-money, so they must seize the day.

    As the financial situation in the NFL continues to evolve, we see Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Rodgers, and so many QBs break the bank. Great for them; a QB deserves top money for sure. There is no maximum salary in the NFL for a particular player, so the team must decide how much they can give one player and still compete. Sure, everyone wants a QB like Rodgers, but how much can you give him while ensuring he doesn’t end up playing by himself? The question does have to be asked, though. Can you win while paying a QB 20% of your entire cap? When it comes to winning the league or building a contender, is a team able to focus half of the money on five players while maintaining a good enough roster to sustain a run through a long regular season and into January?

    The Rams and Eagles have QBs that were taken in the 2016 draft – just like Dallas. The Rams and Eagles have QBs that will probably be making between $20-30 million per season in a few years – just like Dallas.

    It is interesting to see those teams add veteran players on short-term contracts this season as they go all-in right now in their Cheap QB Window. The Cowboys have brought in a few free agents, but it seems they serve as replacements for the departing Dez Bryant and Jason Witten rather than upgrades. It feels like the Cowboys are treading financial water while these other teams are “going for it”.

    To wrap this up, let’s look at the Cowboys salary’ cap picture at the moment. If the whole pie is $177m, here is how they divide it amongst their top earners.



    They are in a good spot here, relative to the rest of the league. They pay their top 20 players 70% of their money and have 30% left over for the other 33 players under contract. That is very good. It leaves them about $1.6m per player for depth and reserves, a very doable number.

    The question is how this all changes when they must pay their QB the “going rate.” If you were to consider a year to hang on to Dez Bryant, add Earl Thomas, and perhaps get aggressive by pushing a few contracts down the road a bit, this might have been the one.

    The Cowboys appear to be taking the other, more responsible approach: drafting young players and mostly growing the big picture while moving on from underperfomers. It is smart and responsible, but curious given their reputation. They have a healthy salary cap and some future flexibility to work with. The Cowboys can generate even more if they get an extension done with Demarcus Lawrence, freeing them from his massive franchise tag figure.

    Is 2019 the actual “go for it” year? Tony Romo and Dez Bryant will be completely off the books, with Prescott’s final discount year. Will that be the season they try to fit in additional manpower to mount their best challenge to the crown?

    The clock is ticking. The discount QB window is closing. By 2020, the Cowboys will either be paying Dak Prescott around $25 million a season or they will have a different QB1 altogether. Teams with young, cheap QBs are pushing their chips in for this window. And yet, the Cowboys are taking a more measured approach and keeping some powder dry for now. We are left to wonder what their plan truly is to try to stay in the biggest hands at the table.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  2. #2
    Senior Member P_T's Avatar
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    With his third season as the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys looming, Dak Prescott faces his most crucial campaign yet.

    The Cowboys are aiming for a postseason return, but Prescott's 2018 performance will also have a significant impact on negotiations with the organization for a contract extension. Prescott stressed he hasn’t thought specifically about what the structure of a new deal might be, but he said he would also take the team's needs into consideration.

    “That’s all good money, and that’s all big money, honestly,” Prescott told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday in a phone conversation. “I haven’t decided, or haven’t even talked about whether it’s a fully guaranteed deal, all upfront, or whatever, short-term deal, or make it long-term. I’ve got to take care of myself and take care of my family.

    “But at the same time, I want to do what’s best to get good players around me and keep good players around me, because that’s how you win. So if it’s short-term to allow other players to get paid, or long-term because I want to continue to stay a Cowboy and that helps the organization – we’ll get there when that time comes.”

    This offseason, Matt Ryan signed an extension with the Falcons giving him $30 million per season and $100 million guaranteed, both of which set NFL records. Earlier, Kirk Cousins signed a three-year, fully-guaranteed deal worth $84 million with the Vikings.

    And yet Prescott, a fourth-round pick in 2016, remains one of the best bargains in the NFL, set to earn $630,000 this year in base salary.

    While the Cowboys still have Prescott’s rights for 2019 and could tender the franchise tag on him, it’s common for teams to look to lock up ascending players, especially quarterbacks, to long-term deals prior to entering the last year of the contract.

    “Personally, it’s about winning, man,” Prescott said. “When it comes to the contract, we know this is a year where it’s going to happen in some form or fashion. For me it’s just about focusing on being the best I can. Being the best quarterback I can to make sure we win a lot of games so that I can show this organization what I can do and what I can do for many years to come. I know if I do that and win a bunch of games, go out there and win a Super Bowl, that money will take care of itself.

    “Yeah, it’s a big year, but it’s a big year because it’s Year 3. It’s a huge year because it’s the next year.”
    RKG?

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