Stephen and the Cap

While we look back on the beginning of free agency and wait for the draft to complete the 2015 roster, it’s a good time to look at how Stephen Jones has become a very good manager of the salary cap. We can look back at the process that has brought the team to where it is and appreciate the evidence for confidence going forward. Stephen Jones has attacked the troubled financial situation the team was in on several fronts. It is safe to assume that the Jones family has the resources to figure out a way to get on top of most any financial situation, and the NFL salary cap is a rather simple one in comparison to other economic markets. Stephen has become a chip off the old block in that regard.

Looking back at just a few milestones, Stephen Jones’ input can be seen increasing since 2010. When the team signed Brandon Carr to an expensive contract he expressed acknowledgement of the overpay, but that it was necessary. Since then, the team has made more prudent moves in free agency. No players from the top of their market have been signed until Greg Hardy last week. His case is a special one, and his contract involves little risk for the team.

The players who have been signed have been seen as quality backups or temporary starters to fill the role until a homegrown player was ready. Examples include Mackenzie Bernardeau, Will Allen, Justin Durant, and George Selvie. Rolando McClain was another player the team gave a second chance to while risking hardly anything. He played very well when on the field and if the team and his agent can find the right contract he could be a force in the middle of the defense with Sean Lee. If not, he will have served his role far better than expected, spelling the team while Lee recovered from injury and Hitchens got his wits about him as a pro.

The Cowboy players who became free agents, and commanded more money than what they could produce on the field, have been released or allowed to sign elsewhere. Demarcus Ware was the most coldhearted decision Stephen had to make and although it was the right one, the pain will only be erased the day he retires a Cowboy on a one-day contract. After this offseason the list of talented, but overly expensive veterans, who have not been retained, has grown long and includes Miles Austin, Jason Hatcher, Demarco Murray, Bruce Carter, Jeremy Parnel, and Dwayne Harris. Good teams have to allow players to move on, as it is all a part of The Process.

The highest paid players have often participated in restructuring their contracts to allow for more spending money in the current year. The downside is that it commits the team to the player for longer term. The clearest example is that this year Romo’s league-high $27 million could be brought down significantly to afford other players, but it would require the team be committed to him for several years. If they cough up the big cash this year, then should Romo suffer a career-ending injury or win a Super Bowl and want to retire on top, the team won’t be paying him to sit at home. Tyron Smith restructured this year, but he seems to be a safe long term bet. Jason Witten, Miles, Austin, Demarcus Ware and others have restructured in the past.

Stephen jones operates the salary cap with trust in the team’s ability to build through the draft. Since 2010 the Cowboys have been one of the best drafting teams in the league. Garrett’s new focus on the draft and the expertise of Will McClay have paid of handsomely. The three first round offensive linemen (Smith, Frederick, and Martin) are the highlights but Wilcox, Hitchens, Carter, Murray, Randle, Crawford, Lawrence, Williams, Harris, and Escobar have all proven to be contributors capable of making an impact. Jerry Jones famously trusted his team of Stephen, Garret, and McClay in this new era, highlighted by the choice to skip drafting the available Johnny Manziel. While not every player has been retained, keeping and maximizing their high picks has paid off. Without this base, there would not be faith to let skilled vets go.

A smart way to maximize the cap space is to find bargain players. A player with a skilled history of on field production can be gotten below market value if there are debilitating factors like injury, off the field issues, or a recent down year. Henry Melton and Anthony Spencer were gotten on the cheap after knee injuries. Rolando McClain signed a cheap deal after his unique double retirement. Greg Hardy was signed for an extremely cheap minimum and will literally have to prove it to get his payday. Should he earn the incentives, his contribution will have been worth the price. These players haven’t necessarily always been kept. Like a cheap free agent veteran, the guys who get “prove it” deals are only there until a draftee is ready to step in.

After the team has created a base of solid draft picks, they then need to turn attention to signings those players with expiring rookie contracts to new deals. The earlier you lock in a player at an expensive position, the cheaper he can be had. Tyron Smith’s contract for 10 years pays less than the top players at his position and will be of incredible value as he continues to grow toward being arguably the best left tackle in football, while getting paid well below market value. Many have pointed to when the team helped him with some personal and financial issues as a rookie that urged him to give back to the team. The rest of the young line, Terrence Williams, and Demarcus Lawrence could be players who take team friendly deals in the future. Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick were homegrown guys who received solid deals early and now play at a level on the field that makes them a bargain to have.

It is remembered that Al Davis chased the fastest players out of college and it failed to produce. Jason Garrett calls his players the Right Kind of Guys to highlight the importance of the mind in football, not just the body. They are NFL athletes so it is understood they’ll be physically capable. But having guys who buy into the mission and will to do their best, leading the way for the team to do the same, is how you succeed in a sport based so heavily on the group. It is important to note that RKG does not necessarily mean a choir boy like Jason Witten, Brandon Carr or Tony Romo, but a player passionate enough to take the responsibility of an impact play into his hands. There is no difference between Witten and Dez in this regard, even if there is a higher risk that Dez ends up on the negative side of a tabloid media story. The Greg Hardy signing brings attention to this point. His legal issue is messy, but it brought him in at low price and will have an already demonically inspired player ready to “release the Kraken.” No matter what they do off the field, Garrett requires his players do everything in their power to be ready for gameday and contribute to their team the best way they can. Getting suspended or into other distracting issues is not a way to be kept on this team.

The Dallas Cowboys are back in contention as one of the better teams in the league. It has been a long time since they consistently made the playoffs, but they are building like a team who would do so. While it has been a combination of things like the culture change under Garrett, Jerry’s management adjustments, Will McClay’s drafting, a return to the 4-3 defense, and just a stronger roster overall, everything has been made possible by the cap management work of Stephen Jones.