Earlier this week in my article on the Cowboys' top five most valuable players, I discussed why the manner in which fans view players typically differs vastly from how those in NFL front offices perceive them. Fans are primarily concerned with a player's inherent value—how much production he can provide his team—and rightfully so. The best general managers from around the league, however, judge the value of players based upon how their production matches up with their contract. For them, such value is most important because NFL teams work within the confines of a salary cap.
We see this distinction pop up in the lack of trades around the league. If a player's production doesn't exceed his contract, no one is going to trade for him. I see some "Why don't we trade Jay Ratliff?" comments from time to time, and the answer is that Ratliff is in the middle of a seven-year, $48.6 million contract. Ratliff is a quality nose tackle and probably a starter on most teams, but he's no longer worth that sort of cash. Whereas Ratliff's inherent value is solid, his cap-based value is horrible.
After running through the Cowboys' contracts, you start to get a sense of why the team doesn't have much money to dish around in free agency this year. Eight players have contracts worth a minimum of $25 million, six of which are over $48 million. More concerning is the fact that the 'Boys have three players whose recent production clearly doesn't match their contracts—Miles Austin, Jay Ratliff, and Doug Free—due to make $26.5 million in 2013 alone.
And it's not like Dallas can simply cut underperforming players and use all of that money to sign better ones; much of the money that was sunk into the contracts of Austin, Ratliff, Free, and others would be "dead money" if the organization lets them walk, i.e. they'd be paying the players to not be on the team. Actually, the Cowboys paid over $14.1 million to Terence Newman, Leonard Davis, and Marion Barber in 2012. All three players are either on another team or out of the NFL.
When you start to analyze players' worth as a function of their salaries, the picture gets a whole lot messier. You can also start to appreciate the headaches Jerry Jones must incur on a daily basis since he needs to not only help decide who to sign and who to send packing, but he also must, you know, pay them. It's probably wasn't a whole lot of fun for Jerry to fork over $4.8 million for Newman to play for the Bengals this year.
In any event, let's take a peek at the five worst values for the Cowboys heading into 2013, i.e. the players whose production is the lowest in relation to their salary. The two numbers listed after each player below are their base salaries and cap charges, respectively.
Cowboys' 5 Worst Cap-Based Values in 2013
5. Brandon Carr: $14.3 million ($16.3 million)
Let me start by saying that Carr is an outstanding cornerback and in no way would the Cowboys even remotely consider letting him go. Carr allowed 7.4 YPA and came up with some major interceptions in his inaugural season in Dallas. My point is that salaries can sometimes be oddly-structured, and Carr's $16.3 million cap charge in 2013 is a hefty sum. The next-highest cap charge for an individual season in Carr's contract is only $11.1 million in 2016. Carr is worth the overall value of his deal, but he'll need an All-Pro year to truly be worthy of his $14.3 million base salary in 2013.
Cut or Keep: Keep
4. Mackenzy Bernadeau: $1.8 million ($2.5 million)
I charged Bernadeau with allowing six sacks this year and I provided him with the worst pass protection grade (by far) in my 2012 offensive line review. Although the overall value of his four-year contract is only the 14th-highest in Dallas, I graded Bernadeau so low that he might not even be worth the roster spot.
Cut or Keep: Cut
3. Miles Austin: $6.7 million ($3.6 million now, $6.8 million after June 1)
Take a look at Austin's yards-after-catch per reception over the past four seasons: 7.3, 6.3, 4.7, and 4.6. While some of the decline can be attributed to regression toward the mean (we'd never expect Austin to continue to average 7.3 YAC per reception, so some decrease is inevitable), it's also clear that the receiver has lost a little something.
The Cowboys could potentially money by releasing Austin early in the offseason because his cap charge will rise after June 1, meaning his spot on the team in 2013 is far from a sure thing. Nonetheless, I think you'll see him in Dallas next year simply because he's still a really talented wide receiver. Players who stand 6'2'', 220 pounds, run sub-4.5, and have 1,300-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons under their belts don't grow on trees. The Cowboys will likely try to renegotiate with Austin, using the potential cap space they could retrieve if they release him early as leverage in their talks.
Cut or Keep: Keep, but try to renegotiate
2. Jay Ratliff: $5 million ($7 million)
Ratliff's situation is very similar to that of Austin—a once-elite player whose production has dramatically declined after signing a massive deal—except for one major difference: Ratliff will be entering his age-32 season in 2013, while Austin will be only 29. Those are three extremely valuable years in the world of professional football.
Tracking historic player production as a function of career approximate value, I discovered that the play of various positions tends to decline dramatically after age 30, particularly that of defensive tackles. That's one reason I predicted career-low numbers for Ratliff prior to the 2012 season, and there's not much of a reason to think he will buck historical trends at his position in the future. Unless he's willing to take a significant pay cut, the Cowboys might want to consider finding his replacement.
Cut or Keep: Renegotiate or cut
1. Doug Free: $7 million ($10.02 million)
It's really difficult to move on from a player in whom you invested so heavily; it almost feels like giving up. In economic terms, though, Free's $32 million contract is a sunk cost. The Cowboys need to look at how Free's potential future play matches up with his cost against the cap, and there's no doubt that the right tackle who allowed seven sacks and pressure on 6.2 percent of pass snaps isn't worth an $10.0 million cap charge in 2013.
Cut or Keep: Cut