The Dallas Cowboys could give a seminar on the art of restructuring contracts.
The Cowboys have redone a boatload of deals this offseason in an effort to free up cap space. The latest came on Thursday, when Dallas re-worked the contract of veteran offensive lineman Doug Free.
Free, who would have made $7 million in 2013 and counted for just over $10 million against the salary cap, will now make $3.5 million, although that amount is now fully guaranteed.
There was good reason for Dallas to ask the 29-year-old to take a reduction in salary.
After playing well in 2010, the Cowboys rewarded Free with a four-year, $32 million extension that included $17 million in guarantees.
Since then, Free has done very little to justify all that money. In 2011, Free ranked 44th among all offensive tackles according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That precipitated a move to right tackle last year.
Free was even worse on the right side, ranking 66th at the position according to PFF.
By the end of the season, Free was platooning with Jermey Parnell. The Cowboys explored other options in the offseason, including free agents Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston, but they've maintained all along that they were interested in bringing Free back.
Now they have at a discounted rate, although some scribes feel that doesn't address the larger issue.
The obvious downside to the Doug Free deal: The Cowboys failed to upgrade a problem position.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) May 16, 2013
What it does do is "free" up over $3 million in cap space for a Dallas team that's perpetually playing musical contracts as it tries to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The question then becomes what the Cowboys choose to do with that space.
At least one sportswriter believes that the Cowboys might utilize that money in-house.
With gain of $3.5m in cap space on Doug Free move, gives Cowboys more room 4 a Sean Lee extension sometime b4 season starts— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) May 16, 2013
That would make quite a bit of sense. Lee has battled injuries, but he's also shown the ability to be a difference-maker on defense, topping 100 tackles in 2011 and forcing an average of three turnovers a year over the past three seasons.
That extra cap space could also allow the Cowboys to add a free agent to address one of their areas of need.
Veteran safety Charles Woodson is still looking for work after visiting the Denver Broncos this week. The Cowboys' present options at safety are hardly world-beaters, and Dallas would more or less fit Wooson's preference of playing for a contender.
Kerry Rhodes and Quintin Mikell, veteran safeties with proven track records, are also available.
Additionally, the Cowboys are precariously thin at running back behind DeMarco Murray, who has had his fair share of issues with staying healthy. There are a number of free agents still available at the position, from Ahmad Bradshaw to some less appealing options such as Michael Turner, Beanie Wells and Cedric Benson.
It may not be the most exciting list of names, but any of those backs could at the very least serve as a more proven insurance policy against a Murray injury.
Granted, there's no guarantee that the Cowboys will use the cap space in any of these ways. However, it's a pretty safe bet that they'll use it. Jerry Jones isn't exactly known for sitting on his hands.
The final word on this restructuring likely won't come down until we see if Free can recapture past form. However, even if he can't, the Cowboys have lessened the sting of cutting him. And if he does, $3.5 million a year is a steal for a starting tackle.
Turn that savings into another player who can help the team, or an extension for Lee, and a good day for the Cowboys will become even better.