5 horrible decisions that cost Cowboys a ton of 2021 cap space

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K.D. Drummond
·6 min read
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By now everyone knows how the NFL’s salary cap picture has changed. 2021 will see a decrease in the salary cap for the first time in a decade and it likely will be a much bigger drop than before. After being at $198.2 million in 2020, the cap could fall as low as $175 million thanks to COVID-19 restrictions that eliminated in-person attendance to various degrees across the entire league. Some forecasts have the final number (which should arrive around the first week of March) around $185-$195 million, which will be a deep cut from the previously projected $210 million before the world changed.

In addition to this specific year’s cap, the NFL allowing teams to rollover unused cap space for the last several years was a game changer. No longer do teams feel the need to approach cap space like unused vacation leave, use it or lose it. Teams take last season’s unspent cap and it adds to whatever space they have for the current season. So spending just to spend, or making bad investments that don’t pan out is way worse in today’s NFL. It is here that we’ll study some decisions the Cowboys made in 2020 because they play a major role in 2021.

If the Cowboys are going to play hardball with quarterback Dak Prescott over $2 million, $3 million a season, it would stand to reason that bad decisions made last season are part of the cap space that could have gone to acquiescing to their star’s demand.

Here’s a look at a handful of bad investments the team made that come into play this offseason.

Not releasing Tyrone Crawford

(Photo by Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS/Sipa USA)

I have no issues with Crawford the man or the player, but as anyone who's followed me over the last half decade knows, I was a very vocal opponent of the contract extension Dallas gave him in 2015. It made no sense to pay a player twice what he was worth. Then Crawford missed most of 2019 with injury after a tumultuous offseason that included a bar brawl and had double hip surgery. Crawford had an $8 million base salary in 2020 that could have been chopped off, and they had a new coaching regime to boot. Instead, the Cowboys kept him and got two sacks and seven solo tackles in 16 games. If the club had replaced him with a minimum salary guy, over a four-year Prescott deal keeping Crawford in 2020 is a $1.8 million a year difference ($7.3 million total).

Signing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in free agency

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Clinton-Dix played with McCarthy in Green Bay, in fact he was a draft pick of the new head coach. The Cowboys had a safety void and decided to roll the dice on the veteran who had bounced around the league in recent years, playing for Green Bay, then Washington in 2018 and Chicago in 2019. He was signed to a one-year deal and then was released in training camp. Now in hindsight, one has to wonder after seeing his replacement Darian Thompson struggle mightily and the regression of fellow safety Xavier Woods, whether or not the now removed coaching staff (DC Mike Nolan and secondary coach Mo Linguist are gone) knew what they were doing. But regardless, Clinton-Dix cost Dallas his $2.25 million signing bonus as dead money against the cap and didn't play a down for the Cowboys. Taking away the minimum-salary replacement, there's $1.5 million more that could be added to the rollover.

Signing Dontari Poe in free agency

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

It was weird at the time hearing reports that some with the Cowboys thought Poe reported out of shape; after all he was the big-man run stuffer. But he didn't really seem to want to be in Dallas and ended up being released after making just seven tackles in seven starts. Poe's 2020 base salary ($2 million) and signing bonus ($1.5 million) were guaranteed, and he earned $62,500 for each game he played ($437,500) for a total of $3.9 million of wasted space. $3.6 million could be rolled over after replacing Poe with a minimum salary guy on the roster for those seven games.

Signing Gerald McCoy

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

McCoy and Poe came over as a sort of package, after both being starters in Carolina in 2019. It struck me as strange, because Carolina's run defense wasn't good in 2019, but there we were, and likely deposed DL coach Jim Tomsula had some input on the decision. A quad injury suffered in training camp got McCoy released and there's a chance he re-signs with the club this offseason, but fortunately the Cowboys were smart and had an injury waiver setup specifically in case that injury recurred. The signing bonus was given out and counts though, costing Dallas $3 million in cap space just for a from-afar tutor for Neville Gallimore.

Signing Everson Griffen

(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

Late in the offseason, Dallas nabbed Griffen who was a shock to fans that he was still available. Half a season later it was obvious why. Dallas inked him to a one-year, $6 million deal but with most of that tied to play bonuses. In the end, the deal cost Dallas just over $2.5 million and netted them a 2021 sixth-round draft pick when he was traded to the Detroit Lions after seven games and 2.5 sacks. In the end, Dallas probably would've been better off not signing him and giving Bradlee Anae some snaps, saving around $2.1 million in cap space.

Total wasted cap space

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

After factoring in replacing each of these signings with veteran minimum salary guys, Dallas could have had up to an additional $17.5 million in cap space if these moves hadn't been made. Now of course, every team suffers from buyer's remorse on at least a couple of deals they make. But the fact that Dallas made these decisions instead of keeping cornerback Byron Jones because they didn't want to set the market for the position is more than just a mild irritant to a large section of the fan base. Again, the coaching staff that was consulted on that decision is no longer in the building. If that money wasn't going to Jones because the Jonses in the front office didn't like him (we've discussed this in the past), then that money could have gone to a upper tier free agent instead of stop gaps, or it could have been rolled over to 2021 to help pay fo Prescott. $17.5 million in additional space spread out over a new Prescott deal looks as follows: 6-year deal: $2.92 million a year in average salary 5-year deal: $3.5 million a year in average salary 4-year deal: $4.375 million a year in average salary Nothing in the NFL happens in a vacuum. When Dallas is negotiating with Prescott and talking about how they need to save money to go to other players, his agent's response should be, well if you spent more wisely on other players then you'd have more than enough money to meet our market-value demands.

https://cowboyswire.usatoday.com/lists/dallas-cowboys-2021-nfl-draft-dak-prescott-tyron-smith-mock-drafts/