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Sport NFL free agency: Worst of Cowboys' salary cap hell still to come

18:38  20 march  2018
18:38  20 march  2018 Source:   sportingnews.com

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Dez Bryant wearing a helmet© (Getty Images) Dez Bryant There is one huge problem with kicking the can down the road when it comes to the NFL salary cap. Eventually, it stops rolling — and so do a team's chances of upgrading its roster via free agency with splashy signings.

The 2018 Dallas Cowboys are experiencing this first-hand.

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As of Monday morning, the Cowboys were the NFL's only club not to officially sign a free-agent or re-sign one of their own players since the marketplace opened five days earlier. It's quite the statement considering even franchises that traditionally loath to dip into free agency, like Green Bay and Cincinnati, have done just that.

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It also isn't an accident.

NFL FREE AGENCY 2018:

Winners, losers of open market

Dallas is hamstrung because of previous decisions that left the Cowboys with less salary cap room (around $2 million) than any other team heading into the NFL's calendar year. Two recent transactions — cornerback Orlando Scandrick's release and the restructuring of center Travis Frederick's contract — have given Dallas a bit more breathing space for moves like the re-signing of long snapper L.P. Ladouceur, which reportedly will happen Monday. Reports say Dallas will be meeting with New England tackles Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle. The arrival of either could pave the way for La’el Collins’ return to left guard.

But as for those top players who were initially available in free agency, that first wave has crested. The Cowboys' top unsigned player was part of it, as linebacker Anthony Hitchens surfed to a five-year, $45 million deal with Kansas City; Dallas simply could not match.

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Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the only outside marquee talent Dallas reportedly tried to sign, also went to the Chiefs.

Had the Cowboys sealed that deal, the cap space needed to sign Watkins would have come from more contract restructures and player releases. Potential targets included wide receiver Dez Bryant, who likely would have been asked to trim his $12.5 million base salary or even jettisoned if an agreement could not be reached.

A major reason the Cowboys find themselves in such straits is the result of Tony Romo's six-year, $108 million contract that was restructured multiple times after it was signed in 2013. The Cowboys felt confident enough Romo would be their long-term starting quarterback that there was not too much concern about the day of reckoning when the conversions of base salaries to guaranteed money for cap relief would come due.

That moment came much earlier than expected last offseason when Romo retired in the aftermath of his 2016 back injury and emergence of then-rookie Dak Prescott. Even with the $17.8 million charge being spread over two seasons, Romo still counts another $8.9 million against the 2018 cap, which was set league-wide at $177.2 million.

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Per Spotrac.com, Dallas is carrying $14.8 million in dead money (i.e. cap space consumed by players no longer on the roster). The only teams that entered free agency carrying more were Buffalo ($36 million), Arizona ($17.1 million), Kansas City ($16.7 million) and San Francisco ($15.8 million). However, those four franchises still had enough cap space available for multiple big-ticket signings.

And for the Cowboys, the worst may be yet to come.

Dallas was forced to use a $17.1 million franchise tag on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to keep him from leaving via free agency. The Cowboys now have until July 15 to negotiate a multi-year deal that would provide some cap relief. Otherwise, almost 10 percent of Dallas’ 2018 salary cap would be dedicated to Lawrence.

Dallas right guard Zach Martin is entering the final year of his contract after the Cowboys failed to strike a new deal with him during the 2017 offseason. He won’t come cheap on a long-term deal, either, especially after fellow (and lesser) guard Andrew Norwell signed a free-agent pact with Jacksonville averaging $13.3 million per season.

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According to Overthecap.com, the Cowboys must have $7.7 million in cap space available before the draft in order to sign their rookie class of 10 picks (the cap number will fluctuate based upon whether the Cowboys add or subtract selections via trade). Dallas ideally would keep another $5 million or so heading into the 2018 regular season to sign replacements when players land on injured reserve.

Plus, it won’t be long before Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott will have their hands out seeking lucrative extensions when their rookie contracts become eligible for renewal following the 2018 campaign.

NFL FREE AGENCY 2018:

Grading all notable signings, trades

In the big picture, maybe it’s best Dallas doesn't have the means to dip into free agency sans cap concerns. That's because the Cowboys have a poor track record of signings in recent seasons. The list includes defensive end Greg Hardy, defensive tackle Cedric Thornton and cornerback Nolan Carroll, who counts $2 million against the 2018 cap after being released less than one season into a three-year, $10 million deal signed during the 2017 offseason.

The best way for the Cowboys to remain a viable Super Bowl contender — and Dallas is just that despite its cap situation — is through the same formula that keeps Bryant, Frederick, Martin, left tackle Tyron Smith and linebacker Sean Lee as the team’s cornerstones. That’s drafting wisely and ultimately signing those picks to contract extensions.

Avoiding the mistakes that put the Cowboys in this pickle would help, too.

Alex Marvez can be heard from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET Monday through Wednesday on SiriusXM NFL Radio.

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