Dallas Cowboys Face Salary Cap, Free Agent Decisions During Offseason

Dallas Cowboys helmet | Image by Patrick McDermott / Getty Images

The sting of the season-ending defeat in the playoffs at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers has begun to fade, and the Cowboys have locked in the coaching staff for 2022, but the team will now need to pivot to addressing which players can be retained. The Cowboys currently have the third-worst salary cap situation in the NFL and have several key players who are free agents. 

Each NFL team will have a salary cap of $208 million this season, a number that Rob Phillips of the Dallas Cowboys Mailbag says is probably $10 million lower than it would have been had COVID-19 not caused a slump in NFL revenues. Spotrac estimates Dallas to be about $21 million over the cap for the 2022 season. 

“If you’re competitive, you’re probably up against the cap every year, and you’re probably competitive because you’re hitting on draft picks that eventually need big long-term deals,” Phillips wrote on the Cowboys’ official website. “The system is designed for teams to face these challenges, especially if your roster has a franchise quarterback who earned a huge second contract.”

One of the most significant impacts on the Cowboys’ finances will be the expiration of numerous one-year deals signed ahead of the 2021 campaign.

The team has 23 players who were on the roster in 2021 that have contracts expiring this offseason. Notable names include Pro Bowl punter Bryan Anger, defensive ends Dorance Armstrong, Brent Urban, and Carlos Watkins, wide receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson Jr., safety Malik Hooker, and running back Corey Clement. 

NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund believes that one step the Cowboys could take is to restructure the contract of Ezekial Elliott. His 2022 numbers include $18.2 million in contract and a dead cap of $30 million. Elliott is still regarded as one of the better running backs in the NFL, but his 2021 numbers were below expectations. 

“Elliott carries the highest 2022 cap hit among NFL running backs — it’s 8.6 percent of the Cowboys’ entire salary cap,” Frelund wrote. “Zeke posted a negative-25 rushing yards over expected in 2021, per Next Gen Stats, ranking 33rd of the 49 running backs who logged at least 100 carries. Now, that dead cap figure makes an outright release inconceivable. But a restructure could make plenty of sense, especially considering Dallas has a younger back who could use more burn in Tony Pollard.”

Frelund isn’t the only expert that sees restructuring as a viable way for Cowboys VP Stephen Jones to make room. It may also affect one of the team’s most important positions — quarterback.

“You can believe they will restructure Dak Prescott,” wrote Dave Halprin for Blogging the Boys. “His contract was built to be restructured to provide more cap space. If the Cowboys decide to go the full route in restructuring his deal they will save just over $15 million against the cap for 2022.”

Halprin thinks that other moves could also be in play, including restructured deals for DeMarcus Lawrence and several other players to get the Cowboys below the cap. 

Bobby Belt of 105.3 The Fan thinks that the Cowboys may even make some significant cuts in the offseason to free up cap space. He sees the contract with Amari Cooper as being one prime for a change. 

“Unlike most big money contracts, the Cowboys would save more money by an outright, pre-June 1 release, than they would by restructuring his deal. That makes Cooper a prime target for release,” Belt wrote. “Cooper is a true #1 receiver, and the offense has shown in recent years that it simply isn’t as good when he’s not involved. But the Cowboys have some tough financial decisions to make, and Cooper could be caught up in that.”

Decisions on which players will be signed and which will have their contracts restructured likely won’t be made until Spring and Summer before training camp begins. March 8 is the deadline for teams to issue a franchise tag, while the free agency period will begin on March 16. 

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