When the Cowboys drafted DeMarco Murray in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the quality of the selection extended beyond the running back's production through two seasons. As the 71st overall pick, Murray garnered a four-year contract worth only $2.97 million. While you and I might not make that amount of money over the course of our lives, securing a running back of Murray's caliber for under three-quarters of a million bucks per season is a steal in the NFL.
It's uncommon to hear about a player's value in relation to his salary, but that's really the nature of how those in the Cowboys' front office think. Is Jay Ratliff a valuable player? Well, he might be an above-average nose tackle, but he's not particularly valuable in the midst of his seven-year, $48.6 million deal. A nose tackle with a skill set even slightly worse than that of Ratliff could be far more "valuable" to Dallas if he came with the same contract as Murray, for example, because it would allow the team to bring in more talent at other positions.
In this way, players have two different types of value: inherent value and cap-based value. The teams that seek only inherent value, i.e. they try to sign the best players, regardless of the cost, are the ones that tend to struggle over the long-term. A player's true worth to a team extends only insofar as the quality of his play exceeds his cost to the team.
Thus, while a player like Brandon Carr undoubtedly possesses a ton of inherent value, his cap-based value isn't necessarily outstanding since he just signed a $50.1 million contract. Thinking of players in this manner, you can see why it's so important to hit on draft picks. With his four-year, $16.3 million deal, cornerback Morris Claiborne has superior cap value to Carr because his contract doesn't preclude the organization from signing other players. The best teams find a way to acquire an abundance of players whose production outweighs their contract, and those guys are most abundant in the draft.
Thus, it's no surprise that four of my top five values for the Cowboys in 2013 are players who are still on their rookie contracts. The numbers listed after each player below are their 2013 base salaries.
Top 5 Cap-Based Values for Cowboys in 2013
5. DeMarco Murray: $620,000
You don't really need numbers to show Murray's importance to Dallas; if you watched Cowboys games this year, you couldn't miss it. The offense is exponentially more potent with Murray in the backfield, as his career 4.8 yards per carry suggests. If running back efficiency weren't so poorly correlated with team success (suggesting running backs play a relatively unimportant position), Murray would be higher on the list.
4. Tyron Smith: $1.5 million
Smith's transition to left tackle wasn't an easy one this season; the second-year player allowed pressure at nearly twice the rate as in his rookie campaign at right tackle. However, Smith progressed as the season rolled along and played quite well over the final quarter of the year. More important, it's extremely rare to find a franchise left tackle with a price tag as low as Smith's. Paying just $1.5 million to a player with Pro Bowl-caliber ability at a position as vital as left tackle is valuable.
3. DeMarcus Ware: $5.5 million
Ware's presence as my third-best cap-value shows you just how much cap-based value differs from inherent value. Ware is still the Cowboys' best all-around player, despite a "down year" in which he recorded 11.5 sacks while working through injuries. The total value of Ware's $79 million contract exceeds everyone else on the team, but his 2013 base salary of $5.5 million is relatively low for an elite edge-rusher.
2. Morris Claiborne: $1.1 million
He had his ups and downs in his first year, allowing 8.28 yards per attempt and hauling in just one interception, but Claiborne is still a tremendous value on his rookie deal. The cornerback gave up just one touchdown over his final nine outings, including four games in which he allowed no more than 27 yards. He's a long-term answer at a position of massive importance.
1. Dez Bryant: $1.6 million
While the order of the Cowboys' other best values is debatable, this one is not; Dez Bryant is simply the best cap-based value in Dallas. In 2013, Bryant is due only $1.6 million of his five-year, $11.8 million rookie contract. Assuming he continues to build upon his breakout season, Bryant will be one of the premiere values in the entire NFL.
Tony Romo: $11.5 million
We all know Romo struggled in Week 17, but whether or not the quarterback can lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl shouldn't be a question. It's extremely rare for any team to win a championship without a top-tier quarterback. That guy doesn't necessarily need to be elite (think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers), but he does need to at least be in the next tier (think Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan). Since having such a quarterback is basically a prerequisite for late-season success, you almost need to "overpay" for one. Romo's $11.5 million base salary sure is a lot of money, but it will still be only the eighth-highest for a quarterback next year.
*Jason Hatcher: $2 million *
Hatcher somewhat quietly turned in the best season of his career in 2012. The defensive end's four sacks aren't really representative of the pressure he put on the quarterback all year; based on his 29 total pressures – a number that was just two shy of Ware for the team lead – Hatcher's most likely sack total was seven. He has just one year remaining on his $6 million contract.
It's always vital to draft quality players, but the importance of the Cowboys' 2013 draft can't be understated. With little cap space with which to work in the near future, Dallas needs to bring in players who can make significant contributions without eating up valuable cap space. The key to a prosperous future in Big D will be the organization's ability to secure such cap-based value in this draft and beyond.