The Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in some trouble with the salary cap, but they can and will make a few cuts to generate cap space in 2014.
Roster decisions aren't as easy as "this player is a starter so we should keep him" or "that player isn't performing up to par so we need to cut him." Teams need to consider value, which is how a player's anticipated future production compares to his contract.
The Cowboys have signed some pretty poor contracts in the recent past (Jeremiah Ratliff, Marion Barber, Jason Witten, Miles Austin and so on), and that has put them in a position where they don't have much salary-cap flexibility.
They'll easily make it under the cap by cutting a few guys and restructuring contracts, but when you sign bad deals, you usually don't have much room to maneuver when it comes to signing high-quality free agents.
Using the contract data at Over the Cap, I've identified five potential salary-cap casualties for Dallas in 2014.
Cap Number: $16.00 million
Dead Money: $8.57 million
Cap Savings: $7.43 million
In all likelihood, defensive end DeMarcus Ware won't be going anywhere; he'll likely take a pay cut to remain in Dallas.
If he doesn't, the Cowboys have no choice but to release him. It's not that he can't still be an effective starter; it's just that his 2014 cap number is so high that Dallas must figure out a way to bring it down.
To give you an idea of how much money the Cowboys could save by cutting him, consider that the release of any other player would bring no more than $2.03 million in long-term cap savings; Ware's is up at $7.43 million.
Again, the best course of action for both parties is to redo his deal.
Cap Number: $8.25 million
Dead Money: $7.86 million
Cap Savings: $394,000
Wide receiver Miles Austin's situation is a unique one because he can be designated as a June 1 cut. That means that the Cowboys can actually save $5.5 million (Austin's base salary) against the cap in 2014 by releasing him, but $5 million of that will carry over to 2015 as dead money.
This is the sort of scenario that has gotten the Cowboys in cap trouble. They've sacrificed the future to patch up things in the short term, and this move, which ESPN Dallas reports they're widely expected to make, is another example of that.
It's not that Dallas will ever have major trouble getting under the salary cap; they won't. But there's a difference between staying afloat and having the flexibility to make certain moves as they're needed. Still, Austin will probably be released and won't play for Dallas in 2014.
Cap Number: $1.73 million
Dead Money: $225,000
Cap Savings: $1.50 million
Backup center Phil Costa gives Dallas depth, so it will be interesting to see if the team lets him go in order to save $1.5 million against the cap this year.
He is a great example of why Dallas doesn't have the ability to generate a lot of cap space by releasing players. After Ware, Austin (in the short term) and wide receiver Dez Bryant, Costa is the player whose release would give the Cowboys the most cap room, yet it's just $1.5 million.
In reality, Dallas is going to save the most cap space by restructuring contracts for players like Ware, quarterback Tony Romo, linebacker Sean Lee and tight end Jason Witten.
Cap Number: $1.83 million
Dead Money: $333,000
Cap Savings: $1.5 million
Like Costa, offensive tackle Jermey Parnell's release would save the Cowboys $1.5 million. That's not a huge amount of money, but it could be enough to justify releasing a backup.
The problem is that the team isn't exactly stacked at offensive tackle. Right tackle Doug Free struggled down the stretch in 2013, so Parnell is a nice insurance policy for Dallas. Things might look different here if the Cowboys can land a highly coveted tackle in the draft.
Cap Number: $1.45 million
Dead Money: $200,000
Cap Savings: $1.25 million
With the emergence of young linebackers Kyle Wilber and DeVonte Holloman, it's unlikely the Cowboys will hang onto veteran Justin Durant. It might be a different story if Durant's release wouldn't save any cap space, but it will give the 'Boys $1.25 million. Even at that modest level of savings, his release is all but a certainty.
Again, the majority of the Cowboys' cap relief will come via restructured contracts. Other than wide receiver Miles Austin and a handful of low-level veterans like linebacker Justin Durant, Dallas doesn't figure to cut that many players.
Looking at the players whose releases would save the most money, though, here are a few other names to keep an eye on:
G Mackenzy Bernadeau: $1.43 million cap savings
DT Nick Hayden: $730,000 cap savings
RB Joseph Randle: $400,000 cap savings