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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Here We Go, March Madness Underway


FRISCO, Texas – Well, here we go again. Happens every springtime.

Like clockwork, you know. About that time our own clocks spring ahead.

Fans become irritated with the Cowboys for their free-agency reticence. For simply nibbling away to put a 53-man roster together instead of making a few big financial splashes to sign players most have heard of. You know, big names that come with big paychecks.

And this might be 2021, as we are oh, so slowly emerging from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic that brought us to our knees right about this time last year, but by no means are we out of the woods, but the complaints once again are howling louder than those West Texas winds that have come blowing in here the past several days.

This might be the real March _Madness_.

Like, why couldn't the Cowboys sign Giants free-agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, the way the Vikings did?

Why couldn't the Cowboys retain the services of backup quarterback Andy Dalton, sign him the way the Bears did?

Can't they sign one of those name cornerbacks that are still floating round, like Richard Sherman? Or like the Vikings did with the aging Patrick Peterson?

Oh, the sarcastic hoots out there when the Cowboys did sign a couple of their own, like special teams ace C.J. Goodwin. Or cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Or giving restricted tenders to Cedrick Wilson and Antwaun Woods.


Come on, why not former Bears corner Kyle Fuller? Or linebacker Matt Judon? Or safety Rayshawn Jenkins?

Well, here is why.

There is a salary cap, and the Cowboys, as many insist they can do, have massaged that sucker about as well as they can so for, which by the way a cap that has decreased nearly $16 million this year to $182.5 million. They already replenished their cap space by restructuring the contracts of Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin to pump nearly $18 more million into the cap for this season with restructure bonuses.

Here is the other reason. Big reason. Money already spent and promised.

When it comes to just 2021 salary cap charges, the Cowboys have the No. 1 running back this year, Ezekiel Elliott hitting the cap for $13.7 million.

DeMarcus Lawrence's team-high $25 million ranks first among NFL defensive ends this year.

Dak Prescott's $22.2 million is but a paltry 11th in the league for quarterbacks in 2021.

Amari Cooper at $22 million is second among wide receivers.

Tyron Smith, before his restructure, which turns a portion of base salary in a handed signing bonus that is prorated for cap purposes over the life of the deal, would have been the fourth highest among left tackles before being reduced to a paltry $7.35 million.

You know that guy named Zack? Maybe the best guard in the NFL? Heck, could make a case for one of the very best offensive linemen in the NFL. Zack Martin's 2021 cap hit would have been second among guards until his restructure took him to $9.9 million.

And a third member of that offensive line, Collins, would have been fifth among right tackles until his restructure came to $6.8 million.

Then there is Jaylon Smith at a $9.8 million cap hit, 10th highest among inside linebackers, actually behind former Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, now in Kansas City. And just for future notice, next year, should the Cowboys pick up Leighton Vander Esch's fifth-year option, he will come in at $9.3 million.

So I'd be a tad more hesitant to label the Cowboys a bunch a cheapskates when realizing their top-8 cap hits for 2021 come to right at a most sobering $117 million. Subtract that from their created $196.4 million space, that leaves roughly $80 million for the remaining 45 guys on a 53-man roster.

And this after rolling over $25 million bankrolled from last year's cap to this year, as they were wisely planning ahead for not only a drop in the salary cap but also what under normal circumstances would have been at least a $10 million increase, plus allowing room for a Dak long-term deal. What's that, operating at a $26 million cap deficit.

As it currently stands, and this is always a constant fluctuation, the Cowboys are like $13 million under the cap when counting just the top 51 salaries at this point.

And let's remember, their rookie pool, with 10 projected draft choices, stands at $10.3 million.

As you can see, just to operate at normal business – and know, as most teams, they like to keep a $5 to $9 million nest egg for operating costs during the season for funding a practice squad, accounting for replacing injured guys on the 53-man rosters and should they have to pay guys injury settlements if cut during training camp – they likely will need to restructure a few more contracts to create some much-required cap space.

Maybe Lawrence. Maybe Cooper.

They just saved $1.5 million by releasing punter Chris Jones, though if you look at it this way, replacing Jones' $2.5 million cap hit with possibly Hunter Niswander at $780,000 saves just more than $1.7 million for a punter.

Depending on what happens at backup quarterback with free-agent Andy Dalton signing with the Bears for $10 million, the Cowboys could find savings there, going from Dalton's $3 million of last year to possibly just the $920,000 of Garrett Gilbert or Cooper Rush this year.

Hey, in their situation, every $2 million counts.

That's why you see the Cowboys filling in holes on the defensive line with the likes of veteran defensive tackles Brent Urban for $1.75 million and Carlos Watkins for the same. Why they have added defensive end Tarell Basham on a reported two-year deal for around $6 million, which usually means incentives are involved, lowering his cap hit to less than half.

At least the Cowboys have not been forced to dump any of their top players, like the Bears did, knowing they could not handle Fuller's $11 million base salary and $20 million cap hit, though will absorb $9 million in dead money. And just in, Fuller reportedly has agreed to a one-year deal with Denver for $9.5 million, with $9 million guaranteed.

As Stephen Jones said during Prescott's press conference last week, "Jerry and I have to make tough decisions on how we divide up, if you will, the pie. And the right guy has the biggest piece."

Meaning Dak. Then the defensive end. Then the wide receiver. Then those offensive linemen and the running back.

After that, you then must have a budget these salary cap days to put an _entire_ roster together, and must be careful not to impulsively splurge. Can't have a steak on every plate.

So you sign a Basham here and a Ty Nsekhe there. You sign a Goodwin here and a Urban there. And you hope your draft produces, guys like a Trevon Diggs and Neville Gallimore from last year. Hope Randy Gregory blossoms. Same with a Tyer Biadasz and Connor McGovern.

You agree to a one-year deal for strong safety Keanu Neal, who returned to the Falcons this past season following season-ending surgeries to repair a torn ACL and ruptured Achilles over the previous two seasons, limiting him to a total of four games after his 2017 Pro Bowl season.

"At the end of the day, I think we have the resources that Jerry certainly gives us, to go out and do what we need to do at the end of the day," Stephen Jones says. "At the same time, we know we've got to manage a cap situation for the next three or four years."

Oh no, "three or four" more years of this madness raging on every springtime?

Note to self: Save this column.

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