While most NFL teams have been hesitant to adopt a data-heavy approach to on-field play, many have embraced using analytics to effectively manage the salary cap. That makes sense, since the salary cap, although intricate, is fixed and not a terribly complex system in the same way as 22 players colliding into one another.
Nonetheless, some organizations—the Cowboys included—continually find themselves in salary cap trouble.
It's not that Dallas is horrible at managing the cap per se, but rather that they've typically paid players for what they've done—as opposed to what they'll do in the future. That's led to Marion Barber-esque contracts that absolutely deplete the team of cap space.
According to the Charean Williams of the Star Telegram, the Cowboys are going to begin 2014 at $22 million over the cap. Tom Pelissero of USA Today has reported the total cap number will come in somewhere around $126.3 million this year, which would be just a three percent increase from 2013.
As mentioned, the 'Boys are about $22 million over the cap. That might sound horrible (and it's not exactly a peachy situation), but they can get under the salary cap limit relatively easily.
The first thing they'll need to do is restructure the contracts of a few players, with likely candidates being quarterback Tony Romo and defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Romo would simply shift around money, while Ware will probably need to take a pay cut.
The Cowboys will be analyzing contracts by breaking them down in terms of the dead money they'd need to eat to release someone. You can look at the dead money involved with cutting players at Over the Cap.
If the 'Boys were to release cornerback Morris Claiborne, for example, they'd need to pay him $9.6 million, which would count against the 2014 salary cap. The Cowboys clearly aren't letting Claiborne go anywhere, but that might at least be a discussion if he didn't have so much guaranteed money on his contract.
As you start to analyze that dead money, you can begin to identify some players who have fairly high 2014 base salaries but not much guaranteed money remaining. Their release wouldn't result in too much dead money.
Some of those candidates include linebacker Justin Durant, center Phil Costa, and right tackle Jermey Parnell. I don't think the Cowboys should necessarily release all of those guys, but those moves would open up a little cap space.
Because of the Cowboys' cap situation, they probably can't sign any big-name free agents. They should be searching for under-the-radar free agents who haven't lived up to expectations but have a combination of low risk and massive upside. I've pinpointed wide receiver Danario Alexander as one of those players. He won't command much money, but he has No. 1 wide receiver potential if healthy.
For each position, I will list the players and the 2014 cap space they currently eat up.
Tony Romo: $21.77 million
Kyle Orton: $4.38 million
Total: $26.15 million (20.7 percent)
Together, Romo and Orton take up 20.7 percent of the Cowboys' projected 2014 salary cap. That seems like a huge number, but I actually think quarterbacks are still underpaid relative to their importance to teams.
Nonetheless, the easiest way for Dallas to reduce their current cap figure is to turn some portion of Romo's contract into a signing bonus. That will give him more guaranteed money, which might be a slight risk, but since I'd anticipate him playing out the life of the contract, it probably won't matter in the end.
By giving Romo more guaranteed money, the Cowboys can prorate that cash over the life of his deal and give themselves a little breathing room in 2014.
DeMarco Murray: $946,094
Joseph Randle: $542,220
Lance Dunbar: $570,000
Total: $2.06 million (1.6 percent)
With running back Phillip Tanner a restricted free agent, the Cowboys will initially have only three running backs on the roster. The team has done an excellent job of not overpaying at the position. Together, this trio takes up only 1.6 percent of the Cowboys' salary cap.
Dallas needs to continue to be smart, and that probably means letting Murray walk after this season. It's not typically shrewd to hand out second contracts to running backs since they enter the league at peak efficiency. Draft 'em, play 'em, let 'em walk in free agency, and repeat.
Dez Bryant: $3.15 million
Miles Austin: $8.25 million
Terrance Williams: $684,868
Dwayne Harris: $682,515
Cole Beasley: $570,500
Total: $13.34 million (10.6 percent)
The Cowboys have been getting the least contribution from their most expensive wide receiver in Miles Austin. His situation is interesting. As Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas noted, the Cowboys can save $5.5 million in cap space by releasing Austin, but that will also come with $5 million in dead money in 2015.
Still, Austin has probably played his final snap in Dallas.
If the Cowboys release Austin, they'll need to bring in another receiver. This draft is loaded with talent at the position, so if Dallas can sign another player to compete with Terrance Williams, they could have a really talented (and more importantly, a really cheap) group of wide receivers.
Jason Witten: $8.41 million
James Hanna: $596,213
Gavin Escobar: $956,931
Total: $9.96 million (7.89 percent)
This won't be a popular opinion, and I'm not sure Dallas would pull the trigger, but I think it should ask Witten to take a pay cut. And if he won't, they should release him. The 'Boys would face only $236,000 in dead money if they cut Witten this year.
While Escobar didn't exactly light it up in his rookie year, Witten has become a liability on the inside. As I predicted in the preseason, Witten's efficiency dropped for the fifth straight year. He's no longer an above-average blocker, so there's little downside to letting Escobar—who should be more red zone-relevant—handle the load if Witten won't agree to a reduced salary in 2014.
C Travis Frederick: $1.56 million
C/G Phil Costa: $1.73 million
G Mackenzy Bernadeau: $4.07 million
G Ron Leary: $495,000
T Tyron Smith: $3.98 million
T Darrion Weems: $570,000
T Doug Free: $6.52 million
T Jermey Parnell: $1.83 million
Total: $20.76 million (16.4 percent)
It's kind of sick that both Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free are set to make more money than Tyron Smith, but that's what happens when you hand out bad contracts. Bernadeau is an interesting situation because the Cowboys can save $1.43 million by releasing him. They don't necessarily have a replacement lined up, although Phil Costa could be that guy. However, Dallas can save $1.5 million by releasing Costa, which is actually the second-highest amount they can save by cutting any single player.
DE DeMarcus Ware: $16.0 million
DE/LB Kyle Wilber: $679,805
DE George Selvie: $730,000
DE Tyrone Crawford: $733,813
DT Frank Kearse: $645,000
DT Ben Bass: $425,747
DT Nick Hayden: $730,000
DT Corvey Irvin: $730,000
Total: $20.67 (16.4 percent)
You don't see Anthony Spencer or Jason Hatcher listed here because they're going to become free agents.
You do see Ware and his massive $16.0 million cap charge.
The Cowboys will need to do something about that since they could save $7.43 million if they release him. Ware is going to be forced to take a pay cut simply because the Cowboys have so much leverage. If he refuses, Dallas really has no choice but to let him walk.
The 'Boys will also save $1.38 million by cutting both Kearse and Irvin, neither of whom have any guaranteed money left in their deals.
You can see the Cowboys have only 16.4 percent of their cap dedicated to defensive linemen, and that's with Ware's huge 2014 cap number. Once they restructure Ware's deal, Dallas will have an unbelievably low percentage of their salary cap tied up in their defensive linemen.
They'll need to increase that number significantly in the future, but it probably won't happen in 2014 with little overall cap space to work with.
Sean Lee: $7.5 million
Caesar Rayford: $495,000
Bruce Carter: $1.54 million
Justin Durant: $1.45 million
DeVonte Holloman: $521,055
Cameron Lawrence: $495,000
Everette Brown: $730,000
Martez Wilson: $645,000
Total: $13.38 million (10.6 percent)
As mentioned, the Cowboys can get out of Durant's deal easily since he has only $200,000 guaranteed. The Cowboys would save $1.25 million against the cap by releasing him, so I'd fully anticipate them doing that.
Outside of Lee, the Cowboys' linebacker corps is extremely cheap. The Cowboys can get rid of Rayford, Lawrence, Brown, and Wilson without seeing any dead money.
Brandon Carr: $12.22 million
Morris Claiborne: $4.44 million
Orlando Scandrick: $6.60 million
B.W. Webb: $605,845
Sterling Moore: $645,000
Total: $24.51 million (19.4 percent)
The Cowboys have nearly one-fifth of their 2014 cap space tied up in three cornerbacks. And the 2014 cap figures don't even do justice to just how much money the Cowboys owe Carr, Claiborne, and Scandrick.
Together, the trio has $36.68 million in guarantees coming to them.
It would really help Dallas if Carr would take a pay cut, but he has a ton of leverage. With $16.87 million in guaranteed money remaining on his deal, the Cowboys would lose $4.65 million against the cap if they were to release Carr.
The Cowboys can also cut Webb and save $273,310 this year, so that's certainly an option. Still, on a per-dollar basis, cornerback is probably the Cowboys' biggest salary cap weakness just because they've allocated so much money to the position.
Barry Church: $1.5 million
J.J. Wilcox: $661,157
Matt Johnson: $570,146
Jakar Hamilton: $504,333
Jeff Heath: $495,666
Total: $3.73 million (3.0 percent)
The Cowboys are extremely weak at safety, but the good news is that they don't have any big contracts there. Their signing of Church a couple years ago was an example of the kind of deals they should be making, locking up players who have shown they'll produce but have yet to truly break out.
The Cowboys can release any safety without much consequence, so all but Church could be out the door. I'd expect Johnson to surprise some people this year and perhaps earn a Church-esque deal before 2015.
LS L.P Ladouceur: $1.0 million
Total: $1.0 million (0.8 percent)
Technically speaking, Ladouceur is the Cowboys' only special teams player who is guaranteed to be back next year—both kicker Dan Bailey and punter Chris Jones are restricted free agents. The Cowboys should end up bringing both players back in 2014, though.
And for now, we'll disregard the fact that Dallas is paying seven figures to a player who throws the ball between his legs a couple times per game.