Roster construction, the allocation of money in a hard-capped league is a daunting balancing act. Teams must manipulate and maneuver within the parameters of the salary cap to retain their essential players, yet find a way to keep depth players on the roster all at the same time.
Every team has it’s own preferences and priorities, but the foundation for roster building is somewhat universal.
Most teams subscribe at least to some degree to the idea of prioritizing the “Money 5” positions. The “Money 5” positions are those that generally play the biggest part in winning or losing football games.
If you get plus contributions from other positions, that’s a bonus. However, by rule, securing the “Money 5” positions is the chief objective. Those positions are Quarterback, Wide Receiver, Left Tackle, Pass Rusher (interior or EDGE), and cornerback. It’s a quarterback-driven league.
On offense, you make sure you have a quarterback, someone to catch the ball from the quarterback, and someone to protect the quarterback’s blindside.
On defense, you make sure you have someone to knock down the quarterback, and somebody to take away the quarterback’s favorite target.
A quick snapshot of where the Dallas Cowboys stand in terms to securing their “Money 5.”
- QB – No franchise quarterback under contract
- LT – Tyron Smith under contract through 2023
- WR – No top wide receiver under contract
- EDGE – DeMarcus Lawrence under contract through 2023
- CB – No top corner under contract
The Cowboys only have two of their “Money 5” players in the fold. Batting .400 might make you a legend in Major League Baseball, but this is less than ideal to put it kindly in the world of NFL roster construction.
As troubling as it is to know that the team does not currently own the services of a franchise QB, WR, or CB, it’s more frustrating to see where the Cowboys have spent their money.
We have defined “Money 5.” All other positions are considered non-essentials or luxury players. That does not mean they don’t help you win football games. If you have a plus player at a luxury position, of course, you pay him in most cases, but never, ever at the expense of your “Money 5.”
The Cowboys have committed some significant chunks of cap space to their luxury players for this season and years to come.
Here are some of the 2020 cap charge totals (with league ranking for the position) for some of the Cowboys’ non-essentials, according to spotrac.com.
- RB – Ezekiel Elliott (4th at position) $10.9M
- RT – La’el Collins (8th at position) $8.95M
- RG – Zack Martin (1st at position) $15M
- C – Travis Frederick (2nd at position) $11.98M
- LB (off ball) – Jaylon Smith (13th at position) $7.78M
- P – Chris Jones – (10th at position) $2.4M
For those scoring at home, the 2020 Cowboys will trot out five non-essential players who rank among the top 10 highest paid at their position (four in the top 5). The Cowboys are the only team in the NFL with the number of high ranking luxury contracts on the books for 2020. If a team were able to somehow pull this off with a proper “Money 5” already intact, the next contract extension should go to the GM. When this is the way your cap charges are scattered about, and you still haven’t locked up to your QB1, WR1, or CB1, this is an example of criminal negligence.
In case you were wondering, 2021 looks even worse. Yes, some new contracts around the league could possibly push their way into the top 10, pushing some Cowboys players out, but cap casualties could do just the opposite.
As it sits today, the Cowboys are the only team in the NFL with six top-10 luxury contracts at their respective positions on the ledger for 2021.
- RB – Ezekiel Elliott (1st at position): $13.7M
- RT – La’el Collins (8th at position): $11.05
- RG – Zack Martin (1st at position): $15M
- C – Travis Frederick (3rd at position): $11.13M
- LB (off ball) – Jaylon Smith (10th at position): $9.8M
- P- Chris Jones – (10th at position): $2.5M
The issue is not that you don’t pay a perennial All-Pro right guard, or a Pro Bowl center, or a young ascending right tackle. Where the Cowboys errored is that you can’t pay them all, especially not before you have locked up to your cornerstone players. Parting with players you like is part of roster maintenance.
If you’re smart you deal them a year early and get some draft compensation which leads to the cheap labor contracts you need some of your contributors to be under.
Successful teams find ways to win with mid-level vets and cheap rookies at some of the luxury positions.
The Cowboys seriously went out and bought leather furniture, a Viking stove, a 90″ TV, Persian rugs, gold plated bathtubs, everything down to the ridiculous Live, Laugh, Love sign to hang above the front door, and haven’t even closed on the house yet. The fans have been tricked into subscribing to the notion that Dak Prescott needs to agree to a sub-market rate, in order to “save some money for the other guys.” In reality, the Cowboys already paid the other guys and didn’t leave any money for Dak Prescott.
Can the Cowboys survive or even thrive like this? It’s not a definite “no,” but it’s unlikely. The team will need to draft better than it has ever drafted, and get some contributions from some unlikely candidates.
We have all heard time and time again that the Cowboys can sign Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones to fair contracts if they so choose, but that will come at the expense of quality depth. Again, nailing draft picks will be paramount, and trading down even multiple times will be pretty enticing. The Cowboys need as many cheap labor contracts as possible to hold the ship together until they can start shuffling out some of these cumbersome non-essential contracts.
Theoretically, the team could escape the Smith (Jaylon), Martin, and Elliott contracts after the 2022 season. Escape years for guys like Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence are nearer, but then you are subtracting from your “Money 5.” However, considering age, it may be time to replace those two soon anyway.
Watching the Cowboys try to balance the books and keep a deep and talented team on the field going forward will be entertaining, to say the least, but the damage already caused by frivolous spending may be irreparable.
The team’s current “championship window” may have been shut before it was ever truly open.
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