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Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: Making Judicious Decisions Is A Must


FRISCO, Texas – There seems to already be this preoccupation with the Cowboys cutting players to free up salary cap space.

And we haven't even reached Presidents Day. The NFL Scouting Combine doesn't start until March 1. The start of free agency is a month away, the NFL Draft still 10 weeks away.

What's the hurry?

Just remember, there are ways to free up salary cap space without cutting veteran players with pricy base salaries, which generally incurs pricy cap hits for dead money. What the Cowboys must do is dig in for another round of reconstructed contracts, which pays players an advance on their 2022 base salaries, then allows them to prorate that bonus over the life of the contract.

That's how they created necessary cap space last year by restructuring base salaries for Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, La'el Collins and Tyron Smith, clearing up $25.255 million of cap space. They must go that route again. And let's not get too hung up on this notion doing so mortgages the future.

Because remember, the salary cap will increase significantly next year with the new TV contract finally kicking in. And assuming there is not another COVID-19 type pandemic hitting, the cap will increase immeasurably over the following several years to absorb those prorated restructure bonuses.

And not to bore you with too many numbers, but let's take Dak's contract for example. Plus, understand, the Cowboys wrote two voidable years into the contract he signed last year for 2025 and 2026 to help absorb the planned restructure bonuses. Take last year's. The Cowboys turned $6.25 million of his base salary into restructure bonus – basically meaning players get upfront money before they even work – and spread that evenly over five years, from 2021-2025, the proration coming to $1.25 million a year. Thus, his base salary counted just $2.75 million, and his cap hit $17.2 million

The Cowboys will do that again this year by building this into his contract, and is the reason why they added the voidable 2026 season so once again they can spread the upcoming restructure bonus over five years.

But you only want to make these restructure moves when confident these players will continue to be productive over the remaining years of their contracts.

So, keep hearing the popular moves are to cut Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence. OK, take "Coop." Go ahead and cut him but incur $6 million of dead money. But more important, who is playing wide receiver for you? CeeDee Lamb and … who? Michael Gallup is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent and coming off reconstructed knee surgery for his torn ACL. Who knows if he will be ready for the start of the 2022 season if they are fortunate enough to re-sign him? Could very well land on PUP.

Also, your fourth, fifth and sixth receivers, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown and Malik Turner also are unrestricted. Plus, the Cowboys would have to make the decision to release Cooper by March 20, otherwise his $20 million base salary becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year.

You got the, uh, nerve to do that with such an unknown wide receiver future?

And as for Lawrence, again, you got the nerve to cut your best defensive lineman to recoup his $19 million in base salary, but knowing you will incur $19 million in dead money, even if you spread that over two years.

Plus, who is playing defensive end for you?

Remember, your second and third defensive ends, Randy Gregory and Dorance Armstrong, become unrestricted in a month. Same as the wide receiver position, and who knows what will transpire with them? And if you cut Lawrence and can't re-sign either Gregory and/or Armstrong, you now are going to spend money either in free agency on an overpriced defensive end or you are going to use possibly a first-round pick on an unproven defensive end in the first round.

Otherwise, your starters are Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston. And don't even go there with, well, Micah Parsons can play defensive end. Please. He is most valuable as a move-around linebacker. Also, OK, the Lionbacker becomes a defensive end. Then who is playing linebacker?

Darn those dominoes.

Plus, even if the Cowboys wanted to, there is no guarantee they can re-sign unrestricted starting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch or Keanu Neal, who is just a nickel 'backer anyway. And if you can't get that done, then you are looking at restricted free agent Luke Gifford, exclusive rights free agent Francis Bernard and last year's fourth-round pick Jabril Cox at linebacker. And that's with Cox coming off reconstructed knee surgery with all of nine snaps of NFL defensive experience.

Good luck with all that.

You know, recently, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he'd be more than happy if he would have the same talent on this 2021 team back and the same health the Cowboys had heading into the playoffs to make another go of it in 2022.

"You let me get back with exactly the same players or the makeup of the same players and as healthy as we were, get me right back here and I'll take that and not at all complain, "Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "As a matter of fact, I won't go to sleep if I can get back to that and get in a game with us at 12-5 and the same place in the rankings, in the pecking order if we get in the playoffs. I'll take it just like that and not ask for a penny more.

"But then I want to play better in the playoffs."

No kidding on that last part, but he knows that former part ain't going to happen. One season does not beget the next.

Because the Cowboys not only face the aforementioned headaches, but also prime contributors from this past season heading into unrestricted free agency are safety Jayron Kearse, only the team's leading tackler, 15-game starting safety Damontae Kazee, veteran safety Malik Hooker, 14-game starting defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, 15-game starting tight end Dalton Schultz, whose 78 catches in 2021 are just one behind Lamb's team-leading 79, and, say what you want, 14-game starting guard Connor Williams, too.

Yep, all of that. So, you had better take your foot off the cutting pedal. As we witnessed in the Super Bowl, stars win Super Bowls, not just a bunch of supporting cast members.

But this conundrum is nothing new for the Cowboys, always skin-tight against the salary cap. Because as Jerry said at the Senior Bowl when asked about the salary cap, "It's ongoing. It never, ever rests. It's just like the clock – tick, tick, tick. If you're sleeping, it's still ticking.

"The cap and the management is highly – heart surgery. If you just put a Band-Aid on it then you will pay for the fact you just put a Band-Aid on it rather than you just got it fixed permanently.

"We live with the cap. … We have challenges, we do have challenges."

But to me, the challenges increase even more if your solution is simply slashing talented players.

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