IRVING, Texas – Finally, at long last, the Cowboys appear to be in healthy financial shape heading into an offseason.
That's not to say they have a ton of salary cap space, but the projection for 2015 is somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million. That number is subject to change when you factor in contract restructures, new deals and the like.
But unlike last year, when the team was well over the projected salary cap before the start of free agency, these Cowboys already have spending room under the coming cap. That's been the target goal of the past few years, according to team executive vice president Stephen Jones.
"I think it's much better and it's getting better. We certainly want to keep it that way," he said Wednesday at Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala. "It was certainly a challenge the last couple of years in terms of the cap and required us to make some really difficult decisions, letting go of a Hatcher and letting go of a Ware, has not historically been our style."
The Cowboys let Jason Hatcher, a 2013 Pro Bowler, leave in free agency last spring, and they released DeMarcus Ware, the franchise's all-time sack leader, in an effort to fix their financial situation. In general, the team has replaced those large, veteran contracts with inexpensive free agents and draft picks.
"Certainly feel like going young, I think we're the third youngest team in the league this year, and I don't think it's by accident," Jones said. "Unlike the past two or three years our injury situation was a lot better this year and we had success on the field. So I think we have to continue to move in that direction."
There's one glaring exception to that trend, and it's at the Cowboys' most important position. With his 35th birthday approaching in April, Tony Romo is the Cowboys' oldest player, and easily their most expensive. The mega-contract he signed in 2013 is scheduled to net him $17 million in salary this year, and his cap hit for 2015 is a whopping $27 million – roughly 20 percent of the salary cap.
That's subject to change, though.
As is often the case around the NFL, the Cowboys could reduce those numbers this offseason. If the team opts to convert Romo's 2015 salary to a signing bonus, it could free up cap room to re-sign its own free agents, as well as pursue others.
"This was carefully thought out when we made our agreement with Tony," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "We knew that as we moved along there will be, reallocation is the best way to say it with his salary, moving it around so that at a given time we could put the best group together with his supporting cast."
The fact that the Cowboys just finished off a 12-4 season, complete with a division title and a playoff win, would seem to encourage them to strike while the iron is hot. Stephen Jones even acknowledged that, calling this a "unique window" for the franchise.
"Depending on the situation – whether it's Dez, DeMarco, a pass rusher – we'd certainly have to take a look at all of the above," he said.
The Cowboys could easily improve their roster with the savings made by restructuring Romo's deal. If they choose to do it, though, it'll only increase his cap hit in the coming seasons – up to four more of them, as he's under contract through 2019.
For a 35-year-old who has suffered debilitating back injuries in each of the past two seasons, that could be cause for concern – it's likely the reason why Stephen Jones said "I don't think it's a given" that the Cowboys will retool Romo's deal this year.
"Obviously you don't like to mortgage your future if you can help it," he added. "We started making the move toward being a younger team and going a different direction in terms of pushing money out, so we'd prefer not to do that -- but at the same time every situation has ramifications and you have to make tough decisions sometimes."
The balance lies between fielding the most competitive team possible – a team that's talented enough to contend for a championship – and protecting the long-term health of the roster.
"We all realize that anything you push forward that if you don't use it it'll cost you cap space that you could use for other players," Jerry Jones said.
Having said that, the general manager provided perhaps the most telling quote on the entire topic. Romo just played the best season of his career at 34 – he set career highs for completion percentage and passer rating.
Regardless of whether they restructure his deal, Jerry Jones said he's not concerned about Romo finishing the contract.
"The effort is to right now put together the best value we can using those dollars and that's the art of the deal," he said. "I will tell you when I look at Tony I certainly do see four or five more years, so nothing scares me four or five years out."