Leading up to the March 9th start of NFL free agency, we will be looking at all Dallas Cowboys players under contract for 2017 and how much of the salary cap each position is taking up.
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Cowboys Capology: Receivers
The receiver group is arguably the toughest for the Cowboy’s 2017 salary cap. Dez Bryant alone counts $17 million; the highest cap hit after Tony Romo of any player. They are also about to lose Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, creating holes that have to be filled. That’s even more money Dallas will need to spend at an already expensive position.
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s look at the NFL’s 2017 salary cap. The league announced that the cap would be set at $167 million for the upcoming season. Even though this is still a $10 million increase from last year, it’s a few million short of what many were projecting.
Dallas Cowboys 2017 Salary Cap = $169.4 million
Now, using that number as our foundation, let’s look at how much the Cowboys’ receivers are scheduled to cost against the 2017 salary cap.
With the biggest cap hit in the entire NFL for his position, Dez has a lot to live up to on the field. 2016 was overall a down year for the franchise receiver; a mix of big and quiet games. The big change at quarterback certainly contributed, but seven NFL seasons have clearly taken a physical toll on Bryant as well.
Dallas could free up a lot of cap space by restructuring Bryant’s contract. However, as I wrote about last month, there is tremendous risk in modifying Dez’s deal based on his slowly declining play and injury issues. Even with about $12 million to potentially gain from restructuring Dez, the Cowboys need to strongly consider preserving their future flexibility to move on from Bryant if needed.
For now, the Cowboys have to hope for the best with Dez. They will hope that better health and a full offseason with Dak Prescott as the starting quarterback will allow Bryant to return to franchise form next year.
After leading the Cowboys in catches and yards last year, Beasley has emerged as one of the best salary cap bargains on the roster. He has replaced Jason Witten as the team’s “security blanket” receiver, showing a great chemistry with Dak Prescott in 2016 in critical moments.
Not only does Beasley’ own modest contract help our cap, but his big role in the passing game relieves any pressure to spend big on free agent Terrance Williams or his replacement. Dallas can afford to wait for a bargain, or perhaps use a draft pick, because that player will not have heavy expectations right away.
Is trouble brewing for the Cowboys’ current return man? When Dallas signed a return specialist in January, we speculated as to what this meant for Whitehead’s future. He is certainly not guaranteed to return.
Still, Whitehead has a minimal cap hit, versatility, and experience. With other holes to worry about in their receiving group, I expect Dallas will retain Lucky at least through the preseason. He will likely be fighting for his job, though.
The undrafted free agent was one of the stars of Cowboys training camp but failed to live up to that hype in the preseason. Jones had a few drops and did nothing to challenge for a roster spot. After a year on the practice squad, he returns and has at least one Cowboys insider projecting that he will be a factor in 2017.
While counting on Jones to be one of your top three receivers isn’t realistic, hopefully he’s developed enough to replace Brice Butler at the fourth man.
A 4th-round pick by the Jets in 2014, Evans missed his rookie year with a shoulder injury. He was waived at final cuts the following season and then spent the year on the Jaguars’ practice squad. He did not make final cuts with Jacksonvile either, eventually spending about a week with the Patriots.
It’s unknown what’s stopped Evans from impressing teams so far in his career. The Cowboys will hope that he can gain some traction in their training camp this year, as roster spots are definitely available in Dallas.
As was said when Dallas signed McDuffie several weeks ago, his experience as a returner could be trouble for Lucky Whitehead. He led the nation in kickoff return average as a senior in college and led the Canadian Football League in kickoffs last year. Given his limited projected upside as a receiver, special teams appears to be the focus in his joining the Cowboys.
Undrafted in 2013, “E.Z.” spent two years on the Texans’ practice squad. He has since bounced from the Dolphins to the CFL to the Seahawks. Dallas signed Nwachukwu, a Texas native and former Aggie, to a futures deal last January.
Brice Butler – Some thought that Butler would have a breakout year, especially once Dak Prescott became the starting quarterback. However, Butler’s production dropped steadily and he was barely a factor in the offense. There is no reason to think that he’ll return.
Terrance Williams – I wrote last week about how this year’s crowded free agent market at WR might keep Terrance with the Cowboys. I think Dallas would be fine with him to keep the same place in the offense going forward, but only if his salary is commensurate with his supporting role. They are certainly not going to get into bidding war to keep Williams around.
2017 Salary Cap Impact
Total Receiver Cap Hit = $23.6 million Percentage of 2017 Salary Cap = 13.95%
Whether or not the Cowboys do anything with Dez Bryant’s contract is the biggest question. They could free up close to $12 million by restructuring him but have to think about the future as well. Right now, with only about $9 million cap space, Dallas may not have any option but to restructure Dez.
The next question is how much they will spend to replace Terrance Williams. While he was only the fourth option in the offense last season, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant are both on the decline. The next receiver we add may need to be able to step into a bigger role, especially if Bryant has one of his routine injury issues.
Coming off rookie deals, neither Williams or Brice Butler cost the Cowboys much more than the league minimum last year. Re-signing Williams or replacing him will mean a significant salary increase at the WR2 position.
The good news is that there will be plenty of options out there in free agency, which should help to keep the market price low. Dallas may be able to get a veteran like Kenny Britt or Torrey Smith for about $3-4 million per year.
The rest of the WR depth chart will likely be filled out with rookies or guys like Andy Jones. Dallas might bring in one more veteran on a minimum contract for insurance, but he would be competing with the young guys for a roster spot.