The Dallas Cowboys (and most NFL teams) will be handcuffed this off-season while trying to upgrade their roster while maneuvering through the NFL’s salary cap restraints.
They won’t have much money to work with in free agency, similar to last season when they were only able to add complementary pieces at the right price — like linebacker Justin Durant and safety Brodney Pool.
That means the Dallas Cowboys must draft well. They did for the most part in 2012, highlighted by key additions in center Travis Frederick (first round) and receiver Terrance Williams (third round).
A fourth consecutive year with no playoff game leaves the Cowboys facing another long off-season. Below, we take a look at some of the key issues the Dallas Cowboys must address before training camp begins in late July:
Getting under the salary cap
The NFL’s 2014 salary cap is projected to be $126.3 million. The Cowboys are projected to be a league-high $31 million over the cap.
But the club’s salary cap woes aren’t anything new. They’ve pushed off their problems year after year as they try to cash in on their aging core before it’s too late.
Teams continue to restructure veterans’ contracts each off-season. They reduce players’ salaries down to or near the veteran minimum and turn the rest into bonus money to create more cap space. The downside, however, is that it increases the players’ cap figures in future years.
It’s a common practice around the league and makes the salary cap more of a charade because of the way NFL executives can manipulate contracts.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones is in charge of the Dallas Cowboys salary cap. When it comes to free agency, the Cowboys believe they will be able to do what they need.
The NFL free agency period opens March 11, which is when the Dallas Cowboys have to be under the 2014 salary cap.
Free agent strategy will include bargain hunting
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says the most important task his staff has each off-season is to evaluate the players Dallas already has. The coaches and scouting department will also be busy looking for new faces to upgrade the roster.
That process begins in earnest with the start of Senior Bowl practices Jan. 20 in Mobile, Ala., and continues at the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 19-25 in Indianapolis.
The Cowboys will need to draft well considering their tight salary cap. The Cowboys will have to decide who they re-sign among their free agents and be bargain shoppers in pursuing other free agents across the league.
Starting defensive linemen Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher aren’t likely to be re-signed by the Cowboys unless they come at the right price.
The Cowboys used their franchise tag on Spencer for a second consecutive season but he played in only one game. Spencer underwent microfracture surgery on his left knee Oct. 1 and is still recovering.
Hatcher is coming off of his best season with the Cowboys, recording a career- and team-high 11 sacks, but he said a week ago he’ll go to the highest bidder this off-season as he tests the market for likely the last time in his career.
The Cowboys obviously won’t be in great position to outbid teams in free agency, especially for defensive linemen in their 30s.
Drafting soundly will be critical
The Cowboys will have a few extra weeks to prepare for what will be an important draft for them as they look to upgrade their roster.
The NFL draft has been pushed back this year from late April to May 8-10.
Over the next few weeks, the Cowboys will evaluate their biggest needs for 2014 before the front office, coaching staff and scouting department heads to Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 20 for the start of Senior Bowl practices.
The No. 1 need area for the Cowboys is clearly their defensive line. Three of the team’s four projected defensive line starters in 2013 aren’t likely to return, leaving end DeMarcus Ware as the lone man standing.
At minimum, the Cowboys will need to add potential starters at defensive end and tackle. The Cowboys’ defense, which finished last in the NFL this season, also needs help at outside linebacker, safety and cornerback.
Some would like to see the Cowboys draft a quarterback to begin developing, Dallas defense is flawed in several areas and needs immediate help.
On offense, the Cowboys could look to draft a receiver if they part ways with veteran Miles Austin this off-season. Considering the Cowboys’ youth at receiver, perhaps a veteran receiver via free agency would be a better fit if Austin doesn’t return.
Adding depth along the offensive line would also be smart for the Cowboys, especially if six-time Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters decides to retire.
The Cowboys were one of six teams that finished 8-8 this season. They will draft either 16th or 17th overall based on a coin flip with Baltimore that will take place in February at the NFL scouting combine. The Dallas Cowboys selected 14th overall in last year’s draft.
Cleaning up contracts — a vicious cycle
The Cowboys have some difficult decisions ahead of them with how to handle the current contracts of some aging veterans.
Though getting under the salary cap by March 11 looks daunting now, the Cowboys can make it happen with relative ease.
They can cut more than $35 million off of their 2014 salary cap by restructuring the contracts of quarterback Tony Romo, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, linebacker Sean Lee, tight end Jason Witten, cornerback Brandon Carr and cornerback Orlando Scandrick and making wide receiver Miles Austin a post-June 1 cut.
The Cowboys would save $5.5 million in cap space by making Austin a post-June 1 cut. Austin and Ware both restructured their contracts last off-season, but the Cowboys could ask each to take a pay cut this off-season to save money, the same way right tackle Doug Free did in 2013.
Austin, who will be 30 this summer, is coming off of his worst season as a starter with the Cowboys. He again struggled to stay healthy, finishing with only 24 catches for 244 yards and no touchdowns. His base salary in 2014 is scheduled to be $5.5 million with a salary cap hit of $8.25 million.
Ware said Monday he’s not interested in taking a pay cut but would again restructure his contract to help the Cowboys’ free up some cap space. Ware, who will be 32 next season and finished with a career-low six sacks in 2013, is scheduled to make $12.2 million in 2014 and has a cap hit of $16 million.
Key off-season dates – NFL Dallas Cowboys calendar 2014
Jan. 20 — Week of Senior Bowl practices begin in Mobile, Ala.
Jan. 26 — Pro Bowl in Honolulu, Hawaii
Feb. 17 — First day for clubs to designate franchise or transition players
Feb. 19-25 — NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis
March 3 — Deadline for clubs to designate franchise or transition players
March 11 — First day of the 2014 league year; all clubs must be under the 2014 salary cap; 2014 free agency period begins.
April 21 — Clubs with returning head coaches may begin off-season workouts
May 8-10 — 2014 NFL Draft in New York City, N.Y.
Dallas Cowboys free agents
Here’s a look at the 2014 Dallas Cowboys free agents:
Exclusive rights (Two years of experience; can’t negotiate with other teams)
Chris Jones – punter
Restricted (3 years of experience, can negotiate with other teams; Cowboys right to match)
Dan Bailey – kicker
Phillip Tanner – running back
Unrestricted (can negotiate with any team, Cowboys don’t have right to match)
Ryan Cook – center
Jason Hatcher – defensive tackle
Edgar Jones – defensive end
Jon Kitna – quarterback
Danny McCray – safety
Ernie Sims – linebacker
Anthony Spencer – defensive end
Brian Waters – right guard
Jarius Wynn – defensive end