There's a growing excitement about the amount of money that's going to be available to spend on players when free agency starts. There's an even greater level of expectation that aggressive teams will jump right into the market and fortify their rosters in hope of making a Super Bowl run.
Depending on the particulars of the new CBA, estimates have the Cowboys around $20 million over the cap. A common misperception is that Dallas will just release a number of players and be ready to go. It's not that simple.
Step 1: Cuts, cuts and more cuts
The popular names to become cap casualties include Marc Colombo (approximately $2.4 million saved), Terrence Newman ($2M), Montrae Holland ($1.5M), Keith Brooking ($1.1M), and Martellus Bennett ($550,000). All told, losing those five players would save Dallas roughly $7.5 million.
Step 2: Leave Marion Barber and Roy Williams alone
Barber is a difficult situation. Releasing him generates $4.25 million in cap space. The problem, however, is upon Barber's release, bonuses kick in and actually create a $1.25 million cap hit for the Cowboys. Likewise, cutting Williams would result in a $3 million cap hit because his unamortized bonuses outweigh his salary. Paying over $4 million to cut two guys you don't need wouldn't be worth it.
Step 3: Re-work deals
A tried and true method of creating cap space is to hand out contract extensions or convert salary into bonuses. Dallas used to do it all the time in the last salary cap era. Two of the best candidates for this method are Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff. Converting their deals to veteran minimums plus bonuses would create about $2.5 million in cap space. Not a windfall, but every little bit helps.
Step 4: Visit the Bank of Romo
For many teams strained in the cap, the only place they can turn to for relief is the highest-paid player on the team, usually the quarterback. Tony Romo's 2011 base salary is $9 million. If the club felt comfortable that Romo is the man to lead them to the promised land, they could offer him a $1 million salary and an $8 million bonus, which would be spread out over the final three years of his contract. Doing that would open up $5.4 million of space for 2011. It would also add $2.7 million of cap charges to both 2012 and 2013, but the Cowboys might not have a choice if they want to get into the free-agency market this year.
To review, if Dallas re-worked Romo, Witten and Ratliff the way I suggested, they could create roughly $8 million of salary cap space. If they released Newman, Colombo, Holland, Bennett, and Brooking, they would create about $7.5 million more of space. All told, they'd create about $15 million to $16 million of cap space, which still may not be enough to be under the cap. And don't forget they still would have to replace a few starters, sign their draft picks, and fill out the roster. So more number-crunching would need to be done.
Dallas is not alone in the pressures of returning to a salary cap era and merely serves as an illustration of the work ahead for many clubs in the next few weeks.