With the official start of the new league year just weeks away, Dallas Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones, along with his rowdy band of nepotism-gone-wild minions, must begin the annual tradition of assembling the pieces that will ultimately be responsible for the coming season’s inevitable disappointing end. A tricky task on par with assembling an IKEA bookshelf while blindfolded and missing several pieces lies before them. Due to previous seasons’ financial wizardry (a.k.a. an oxycontin-level addiction to restructuring contracts), Jones and Co. find themselves more than $22M over the salary cap.
To compound the difficulty of balancing such an overdrawn checking account, several key contributors from last season are currently set to become free agents. Among them are wide receivers Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, breakout tight end Dalton Schultz, talented defensive end Randy Gregory, and the team’s leading tackler, safety Jayron Kearse.
Reports came out late last week that the first step in trying to get the cap situation under control would be to cut No. 1 wide receiver Amari Cooper. With the move, the Cowboys would reduce the amount paid to Cooper this year from $20M down to just $6M. That level of savings would get them nearly three quarters of the way back into the black in one fell stroke of the headsman’s axe. Then news came out this past Sunday that the next line item to be crossed off the balance sheet could be Pro Bowl defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. Word is, Tank declined the opportunity to take a pay cut, which would have left him out on the streets along with Coop. Cutting Lawrence before March 20 would save another $8M this year. And — boom — we’re back under the cap. Wait to cut him June 1, and you can kick his entire $19M off the books and actually have some spending money.
With these inevitable cuts, the Joneses, led by self-perceived fiscally sensible son Stephen Jones, are no doubt slapping themselves on the back for their ability to set feelings aside and make difficult business decisions. Praise their genius management skills and untarnished financial responsibility! Addition by subtraction! Bill Belichick would be so proud! However, to agree with their glowing self-assessment, you would have to completely ignore all of their foolish decisions along the way that put them in the position of having to cut two of their best players just a few years after signing each of them to $100M contracts to begin with.
Pay top-of-the-position money to a holdout running back a full two seasons before you have to? The Joneses did that. Lock up a hobbled linebacker based on just one good year of production out of three? The Joneses did that, too. Play hardball with your franchise QB for three years only to cave to his demands when his price inflated by $15M per year? Haha, yep, that’s the Joneses in action. Restructure aging players into perpetuity until half your cap is composed of dead money? You get the point. Cutting Cooper and Lawrence is not a victory for fiscal responsibility. It is an admission of how monumentally you have failed at being so.
Still, there are those who are probably applauding the Cowboys brass for their shrewd business acumen. All signs currently point to re-signing aforementioned free agents Gallup and Gregory. If you can replace a player with a younger one of similar quality for less money, that is team-building porn for your average fan. That’s what all the great GMs are seemingly able to do. But that “if” is doing some Hafthor Bjornsson-level lifting. On top of the fact that Gallup is still recovering from a season-ending ACL injury that clouds his availability for the beginning of next season, he’s only one year younger than Cooper even though Coop has spent three more years in the league. Gallup has also had just one 1,000-yard season and no more than six TDs in a single campaign. Not exactly apples to apples.
Gregory, though, had a career high in sacks last year. With a whopping six. One fewer than he had senseless drive-extending penalties. He ranked 17th on the team in tackles with 15, one fewer than 16th ranked Lawrence … who played five fewer games. What exactly is the upside here?
Well then, you’re probably thinking, we should be able to get them both for cheap. Not so fast, kemosabe. Current projections estimate Gallup to command somewhere in the $12M-14M range, putting him in the Top 20 salaries at his position. When you consider this basically washes out Cooper’s cut savings, it’s more difficult to swallow than a whole Virginia ham. Cooper is still the far superior player despite a “down” year (more the fault of questionable offensive play-calling and gun-shy QB play than anything to do with player regression in my opinion), and no sane viewer of football could reasonably argue it.
The Gregory for Lawrence tradeoff is certainly less clear. Tank can’t seem to stay healthy in recent years, and his sack numbers have a hard time justifying his price tag on paper, but when he does play, he impacts so much more on every down than simply pinning opposing QBs to the turf. Gregory is probably the more naturally talented player, but he seems to still suffer from the same questionable judgment displayed early in his career, and he’s not been able to turn that talent into meaningful production on the field. Gregory is also, just like Lawrence, already 29 years old, and locking up a player that age long-term probably wouldn’t be smart anyway.
Which is exactly why the Cowboys will probably do it, and I will have to write this same article about them having to cut him and Gallup to free up cap space two years from now. That frustration will only be compounded by the probability that we’ll all be tormented by the famed “Coooooop” chant now coming from Washington Commanders fans twice a year as Amari torches Trevon Diggs again and again after signing with the hated NFC East rival.
But Jerry will still be giddily knee-deep in Johnnie Walker because, win or lose, the ledger will undoubtedly be fatter for the world’s most valuable sports franchise, and, as we all know, that is really all he cares about.