NFC East: Dallas Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- With the salary cap set at $143.28 million for 2015, the Dallas Cowboys officially have a cap of $148,298,313, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information.

That gives them $19.15 million in cap room, but that does not include the $12.823 million franchise tag tender for Dez Bryant.

So the closer number is $6.328 million in room, but that does not take into account possible restricted free-agent tenders or money to sign the draft picks.

But cap room is always a fungible number, to use a Jerry Jones term.

Fear not, the Cowboys still can create plenty of cap room by restructuring the contracts of left tackle Tyron Smith and quarterback Tony Romo, and they will gain room by either designating Brandon Carr a post-June 1 cut or by agreeing to a re-worked deal with the cornerback that will lower his cap figure from $12.7 million.

The Cowboys would rather not create the maximum amount of room possible with a restructuring of Romo’s contract because of the dead money it will add to the deal down the road.

Also, if the Cowboys reach a deal with Bryant on a long-term contract, then his 2015 cap number would be lower than the franchise tag as well, creating more room.

The Cowboys want to re-sign several of their own free agents, starting with DeMarco Murray, however, the chances of reaching a deal before March 10 are slim. The Cowboys also have eyes on deals for Doug Free, Justin Durant, Rolando McClain and have to make decisions on restricted free agents, like Cole Beasley, who could receive a multi-year deal, Sterling Moore, Lance Dunbar and Chris Jones.

As for free agents outside the building, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said on numerous occasions recently, “free agency is not the answer,” when it comes to building a roster because the value never equals the cost. (See Carr, Brandon.)

IRVING, Texas -- Now that the Dallas Cowboys have placed the franchise tag on Dez Bryant, what’s next?

One of Bryant’s agents, Tom Condon, laid out several possibilities without offering up which direction they will go while speaking on SiriusXM NFL Radio on Monday.

Unless Bryant signs the tender, which is worth $12.823 million, then he does not have to show up to anything. While extremely unlikely, Bryant could skip the first 10 games of the season, play the final six and still get an accrued season to his credit.

The offseason workout program is voluntary, as are the organized team activities. If Bryant does not sign the tender, he would not be required to show up for the mandatory June minicamp either, because he would not be under contract.

“There’s a lot of different options,” Condon said. “There’s a substantial number of moving parts.”

Condon was asked what his advice to Bryant will be.

“I probably shouldn’t disclose the plan, don’t you think?” he said.

Condon also wondered whether a team would be willing to give up two first-round draft picks for Bryant should the Cowboys not match an offer sheet.

“He’s a special player, so if you’re picking late in the first round, let’s say you’re in the last four, five picks of the first round and you know that Dez Bryant is a superstar, do you give up a very late pick in the first round this year and a very late pick in the round next year to ensure that you’re competing for the Super Bowl for the next several years?” Condon said. “That part of it is pretty interesting.”

The Cowboys did just that for Joey Galloway in 2000 after the Seattle Seahawks placed the franchise tag on the wide receiver. The Cowboys gave Galloway a seven-year, $42 million deal and the Seahawks turned those draft picks to select running back Shaun Alexander and Koren Robinson.

Galloway suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his first game, Troy Aikman retired after the season and the Cowboys went through three straight 5-11 finishes.

The Cowboys’ hope with Bryant is to sign him to a long-term deal by July 15. They had their first face-to-face meetings with Condon and Kim Miale last week with the promise of more discussions. At the NFL scouting combine, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he hopes the tag is a “placeholder” until a multiyear agreement is reached.

“The Cowboys have given us every indication that they don’t want to lose the player,” Condon said, “and that they value him very much.”
IRVING, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys decided to release DeMarcus Ware last year, they left the negotiations on a new deal open with their all-time leader in sacks as he hit the market without ever making an offer.

They did not want to submit something Ware would sniff at and feel insulted.

A day later, Ware signed a three-year deal with the Denver Broncos that guaranteed him $20 million, which was a figure the Cowboys never would have come close to matching.

This year the Cowboys are preparing to let DeMarco Murray, their single-season rushing leader, hit the open market with the hope he allows for a chance to match an offer from another team.

Are the Cowboys unwilling to make an offer to Murray because they don’t want to offend the NFL’s reigning rushing champion, as they were with Ware last year?

It sure seems that way.

While owner and general manager Jerry Jones said at the NFL scouting combine he has some flexibility in the parameters of a deal for Murray, it might not be close to what the running back can get on the open market.

There have not been detailed negotiations between the two sides, despite the publicly stated positions by the Cowboys and Murray that both sides want to continue the relationship for the long term. Coincidentally, Ware and Murray are represented by the same agency.

Murray has said money will not be the only factor in his decision. Winning will matter. The Indianapolis Colts went to the AFC Championship Game this past season and have more than $40 million in cap space. The Atlanta Falcons struggled badly last season but have a core in place that can turn things around quickly and have roughly $23 million in cap space available. The Arizona Cardinals can create enough cap space to make a deal for Murray more than possible.

And so can the Cowboys, even with the impending franchise tag of Dez Bryant.

The possible -- or impending -- departure of Murray will be about the Cowboys not wanting to spend big on a running back, not about a lack of salary-cap space.

Stephen Jones said at the combine that if Murray hits the market it would not preclude his return, in the same way Darren Woodson and Jay Novacek hit the market in the past but eventually returned.

It’s a risky strategy.

Murray will be under no requirement to offer the Cowboys a chance to match or come close to an offer before signing elsewhere.

And the Cowboys will be under no requirement to wait for Murray to bring them an offer. They will be able to peruse the free-agent market to find a potential replacement at a cheaper price.

It all makes you wonder if the Murray saga will end the same way as the Ware saga.
IRVING, Texas -- By 4 p.m. ET Monday, the Dallas Cowboys will likely place the franchise tag on wide receiver Dez Bryant.

It will mark just the fifth time the Cowboys have used the tag since its inception. Bryant will join Flozell Adams (2002), Ken Hamlin (2008) and Anthony Spencer, who was tagged in 2012 and '13, as the only Cowboys’ tagged. Hamlin never played under the tag having reached a six-year, $39 million deal.

During the 2014 season, Bryant said he would be “highly disappointed” if the Cowboys used the franchise tag. Players largely view the tag as a hindrance, not a financial boon. It effectively keeps them off the open market because other teams are unlikely to give up two first-round picks as compensation.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Elsa/Getty ImagesIf the Cowboys apply the franchise tag to Dez Bryant, they'll have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal.
They want the security of a long-term deal with heavy guaranteed money, but they have few options.

They can sit out the voluntary offseason program, skip the mandatory June minicamp, which would subject them to fines, or sit out of training camp and games in protest. But they won’t be getting paid.

Several executives asked at the NFL scouting combine said the player’s reaction to the tag is not weighed when making the decision. Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson had a succinct answer when asked the questions: “Uh, no.”

“The player has no choice in the matter,” Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “It’s something that we agree on that’s been collectively bargained.”

As much as the players don’t like it, it’s not a tool teams enjoy using much because of the amount of cap space it eats up. While it will not prevent the Cowboys from being active in free agency, tagging Bryant would force them to move money around in ways that could hurt their cap in the future.

On a long-term deal, the player’s first-year cap number is relatively low.

“For some players there’s a negative reaction to it but that’s not the case with all players,” Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith said. “For the team, it’s a tool to continue to try to keep good players.”

Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett said they would not be worried about Bryant’s reaction to the tag, even though there has been heavy speculation that Bryant will stay away from the team in the offseason without a long-term deal.

When the Cowboys tagged Spencer in 2012 and ‘13, he wasted little time in signing the tender.

“If you sign it right away, it’s automatically guaranteed,” Spencer’s Dallas-based agent, Jordan Woy said. “You can still negotiate to get a long-term deal. But I don’t see the benefit in not signing it because if I don’t sign it, it’s not guaranteed, No. 1. The team could take it away and if you wait too long other things can happen (like teams not having cap space). Or people could change their mind. I think it’s better signing it and having the guaranteed money sitting there.”

The likelihood of the Cowboys pulling the tender from Bryant, however, is slim. Another agent said for a player of Bryant’s caliber teams will always create cap space to get a deal done.

“I’ve never seen anybody just pout to the extent that they wouldn’t do it over this kind of money,” Jerry Jones said. “That usually is not realistic. It’s just too much money. And consequently it’s not set up or packaged the way that parties might want -- and I want to emphasize again – it’s not really set up in our best interest at all. There’s a much better way for our future and our cap this year if we didn’t franchise, but this is here when you don’t have your meeting of the minds about how you want to structure something long term. And so if anything it’s in the right situation, it’s a placeholder for addressing it as you move through the future.”

Spencer made $19.4 million in the two years he was tagged, and he played in just one game in 2013 because of a knee injury. Had he signed a longer-term deal, he might not have been able to make the same amount of money.

If the Cowboys are unable to reach a long-term deal on Bryant, then they could always use the franchise tag on him in 2016, which could bring his two-year total up to $28 million. And if they so desired, they could use it in 2017, according to league rules, and likely have to pay him the quarterback tender.

Perhaps Hamlin could serve as the template for the tagging of Bryant.

The Cowboys put the $4.396 million tag on Hamlin in 2008 but reached a six-year, $39 million deal in July that included a $9 million signing bonus. Hamlin, however, lasted just two more years. The Cowboys never got the value they were expecting.

Monday is the deadline to put the tag on Bryant, but the next deadline is July 15, which is when a long-term deal needs to be finalized or the receiver would play the year under the franchise tag.

By then we’ll know if the tag is a “placeholder,” or the deal.
IRVING, Texas -- The dilemma the Dallas Cowboys are facing in trying to re-sign DeMarco Murray is playing out at different spots across the league.

Over the past few days running backs such as DeAngelo Williams, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson and Peyton Hillis have been released. Steven Jackson will officially be added to the list Friday.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsAt age 27, one has to wonder how many years of high-level production are remaining for DeMarco Murray.
Those names get added to the running back market in free agency, which gets added to a fairly decent crop of runners available, including a deep NFL draft class.

In the laws of supply and demand, there’s more supply, so the prices might be lower. Now, all it takes is for one team to make an extremely lucrative offer to alter the marketplace, but the Cowboys and any team looking for a running back will have to ask how much more will they get from a younger Murray coming off an incredible season than they would from one of these more veteran backs at a cheaper price.

And this doesn’t take into account whether Adrian Peterson will be available.

But the point of this post isn’t to make running back-to-running back comparisons between Murray and those backs. It’s to point out the nature of the position. When it ends, it ends.

In 2011, the Carolina Panthers signed Williams to a five-year, $43 million deal that included a $16 million bonus. In 2013 they extended his deal another two years, guaranteeing him more money while lowering his cap value.

Jackson signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons in 2013. The Detroit Lions signed Bush to a four-year, $16 million deal in 2013. They didn’t play out their contracts.

As I’ve said before with Murray, what will matter most will be the money in the first three years. At 27, it’s reasonable to expect he has another three years left in him to play at a high level. What’s not reasonable to expect is another 1,845-yard season because that had never been done before in franchise history.

What the Cowboys -- or any team that might sign Murray should he hit the open market -- can expect is three years of quality production. The design of the contract will be for more years and more money but that’s only for cap purposes to help the team and make the deal seem larger than it really is.

In reality, most free-agent deals are designed to be three years. After the third year, teams want to have a get out of jail free card, which means when they cut a player they create cap room. The Falcons will get $3.75 million in room from Jackson. The Lions gained $1.7 million by cutting Bush.

Wherever and whenever Murray signs, there will come a day when he will be like Jackson, Bush, Williams, Johnson and Hillis -- former stars with diminishing skills.
IRVING, Texas -- Now that U.S. District Court Judge David Doty has cleared the way for Adrian Peterson to possibly be reinstated to the NFL, the future of the Minnesota Vikings running back should start to come into focus.

The Dallas Cowboys have been viewed as a natural landing spot for Peterson, a Palestine, Texas, native, but several obstacles are in the way: age and price.

Though there is no doubt Peterson is one of the best -- if not the best -- runner in the NFL, the possibility of any team making a trade with Minnesota is difficult. From a financial standpoint, it would work for the Vikings to either cut or trade Peterson, but if a team deals for the running back it has to be able to assume a $12.75 million base salary in 2015.

Given that the Cowboys are ready to assume a $13 million price tag on Dez Bryant with the franchise tag, the Cowboys would have to make several moves that free up salary-cap room that will impact their decisions in the future.

If the Vikings release Peterson, who has said last week he is "still uneasy" about returning to the team in 2015 because of how the team dealt with his legal situation, then the Cowboys -- or any team -- could structure a contract in a way that would make it possible for the 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player to return to his home state.

But he won’t be coming for free, and the Cowboys have expressed a desire to be more financially sound than they have in the past.

The Cowboys have repeatedly stated their desire to build through the draft. Though the possible addition of Peterson would make an already strong offense even stronger, it would likely hurt the Cowboys' ability to improve the defense because of the draft pick or picks it would take for any team to acquire Peterson.

Even the possibility of Peterson joining the Cowboys, however, could affect the team’s discussions with DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing. Coach Jason Garrett has made clear his desire to retain Murray, as has Jerry Jones.

With his first and likely last chance to cash in after playing out his rookie contract, Murray is the best runner available currently. If Peterson becomes available, then Murray would be viewed differently, and teams that had been prepared to make strong pitches for him might turn their attention to Peterson instead.
IRVING, Texas -- ESPN Dallas columnist Jean-Jacques Taylor came out fairly strong in saying the Dallas Cowboys need to stop lowballing wide receiver Dez Bryant in contract talks.

Taylor wrote: "Jerry isn't offering Bryant a lucrative long-term deal for one reason: He doesn't have to do it."

Dez Bryant
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIf the Cowboys use the franchise tag on Dez Bryant each of the next two seasons, he'd be guaranteed about $28.6 million.
There is probably a lot of truth to that. In the past Jones has been criticized for overpaying players when he did not have to do it.

Taylor offered up what he thinks Bryant should get and what has happened with the negotiations between the Cowboys and Bryant:
Market value in the world of elite receivers is a five- or six-year deal that averages about $14 million and guarantees Bryant $35 million to $40 million.

Don't believe any poppycock about the Cowboys being close to a deal with Bryant during the season before he changed agents, because that's organizational propaganda at its best.

The Cowboys never offered him any deal with more than $30 million in guaranteed money, which means Bryant was never interested in that deal. The Cowboys offered him a deal with about $20 million in guaranteed money.

How insulting.

Jones said last week from the NFL scouting combine the Cowboys thought they were close to a deal with Bryant. Perhaps one person’s definition of “close” and another person’s definition are different, but it's likely why Bryant switched agents last fall.

The Cowboys have not had any detailed talks with Bryant’s new agents, Kim Miale of Roc Nation and CAA’s Tom Condon. They didn’t talk at the combine either. Everything is pointing toward the franchise tag at this point.

But if I have to contest one thing from Taylor's column it is the amount of guaranteed money the Cowboys are willing to commit.

Since the talk of using the franchise tag on Bryant has been around since last summer when a long-term deal did not get done, the fact that the team only would be willing to guarantee “about $20 million,” doesn’t make much sense to me.

The franchise tag figures to come in at close to $13 million for receivers in 2015. For the sake of math, let’s use that figure. That $13 million would be fully guaranteed once Bryant signs the tender. The Cowboys can also use the tag in 2016, which would be an increase of 120 percent, which means they would be willing to guarantee Bryant another $15.6 million.

At the very least Bryant is looking at $28.6 million in guaranteed money over the next two years based off the franchise tag.

Just logically it would follow that Bryant would not accept a deal that did not include at least that much guaranteed. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson has the most guaranteed money among receivers at $48.7 million. Before his recent deal, Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald was second at $27 million along with Miami Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace.

From there it goes to Vincent Jackson ($26 million), Andre Johnson ($20.5 million) and Dwayne Bowe ($20 million).

So based off the franchise tag over the next two years, Bryant’s guarantee would already be second-most to Johnson.

The debate is how close Bryant gets to Johnson in the guaranteed money. Does he want just a little more? Will he take a little less? How high are the Cowboys willing to go?

All great questions that cannot be answered at this time.

But if there was a holdup in the discussions during the season, that was likely it.
IRVING, Texas -- Twenty-six years ago today, Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys and fired Tom Landry.

Among Jones’ biggest regrets is how poorly he handled the dismissal of the iconic coach. Last year Jones said he should have taken former owner Bum Bright up on his offer to fire Landry, who was coming off three straight losing seasons.

Ever since that day Jones has been searching for his Landry.

While no coach will last 29 years in one spot again, like Landry did, Jason Garrett has the chance to become Landry-like for Jones.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesThe Cowboys awarded coach Jason Garrett with a five-year extension worth $30 million in January.
When the Cowboys announced Garrett’s five-year extension worth $30 million last month, Jones said he naively believed Jimmy Johnson would have a 10-year contract, like Landry, and everything would work out because that’s how it happened with Landry.

Clearly that didn’t happen and Johnson left after five seasons. Since Johnson, Jones has had Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Garrett as head coach.

Switzer and Parcells lasted four full seasons. Phillips was fired midway through his fourth season. Campo lasted three straight 5-11 seasons. Gailey lasted two seasons but made the playoffs both times.

Garrett is starting his fifth full season as the Cowboys’ head coach. He was the interim coach for eight games in 2010 after Phillips’ firing.

He has posted a 41-31 record as coach, finally breaking that 8-8 hurdle in 2014 with a 12-4 record and an NFC East title.

Speaking from the NFL scouting combine last week, Jones was not asked a question about Garrett until the 75th minute of a 90-minute session.

“What’s to ask?” Jones laughed.

Last year there was plenty to ask. The three straight 8-8 finishes were an indictment on the Cowboys' personnel but also on Garrett. His team missed out on the playoffs with three straight Week 17 losses from 2011-13. Garrett’s job security was raised to Jones at just about every offseason event he attended.

Jones maintained belief in Garrett and consistently said Garrett had a long-term future with the Cowboys even if few believed Jones’ words because his actions -- or lack thereof on a contract -- said otherwise.

But in 2014 Garrett flourished. Freed from overseeing every detail of the offense with the hiring of Scott Linehan, a trusted confidante, Garrett was able to be a walkaround head coach.

“My biggest responsibility here was to assess that for the future and quantify it for the future,” Jones said last week from the NFL scouting combine. “This was not a reward. You can say the contract is a reward. You wouldn't have gotten it if you had not done good. For me, this was an assessment of this guy can coach. This guy has soaked it up.”

Jones paid for Garrett to learn on the job, so to speak. The payoff for Jones’ patience came in 2014. For Garrett, the chance to step away from the offense worked out well.

“I think when you’re a head coach and you’re calling the defensive signals or you’re calling the plays on offense, you still want to be the head coach of the whole football team,” Garrett said. “I made a concerted effort when I became the head coach, when I was calling plays, to do that. I tried to sit in meetings on the defensive side, be with the special-teams group. But there’s a logistical aspect to it too. When you’re the offensive coordinator and playcaller, you have to prepare for that. I just think as much as anything else, once we got Scott Linehan in here to handle that role, I could really, truly spend my time equally between and among those three different units.

“I think that’s an important thing. It’s not only the time during the week. It’s time during the game. It’s the emotions, addressing the different weaknesses that you might have on the football team, try to shore those up. I just think it allowed me to do that better.”

It’s what Jones hoped would happen in 2013 when he forced Bill Callahan to be the playcaller, but that did not work out well because Callahan was not as familiar with the Cowboys' passing game. Linehan’s background with Garrett, having worked together with the Miami Dolphins, and their similar offensive systems made Garrett more comfortable.

Now Garrett spends more time with the defense, trying to learn more about the whys and hows of Rod Marinelli’s scheme. He does the same thing with special teams.

“He is not the same guy he was when he joined us as offensive coordinator and certainly not the same guy he was when he was playing quarterback for the Cowboys,” Jones said. “This guy has evolved. He has shown abilities to operate with duress. He has shown ability to be reasonable when needed, unreasonable when needed. He will confront any areas that need to be confronted. Will he do it with skill? Yes. Does he set it up so when he needs correct he can? Has he built a proper deal to correct staff or players? Is he good with communicating any need he has with the league, with the organization, all of those things? I gave him $6 million a year for five years.”
IRVING, Texas -- On Saturday, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said DeMarco Murray would have fewer touches in 2015 if the free-agent running back re-signs with the team.

Much of the debate about keeping Murray revolves around durability and sustaining production after a season like 2014, when he carried the ball 392 times for 1,845 yards. Asking any running back to repeat a franchise-record season is ridiculously unfair, but if the Cowboys are unable to retain Murray, they could look to replace him with two runners.

In the two playoff seasons before 2014, the Cowboys used a committee approach.

In 2007, the Cowboys had three Pro Bowl offensive linemen in Flozell Adams, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis, and Marion Barber and Julius Jones combined for 368 carries, 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.

In 2009, the Cowboys had two Pro Bowlers on the offensive line in Davis and Gurode, and Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice combined for 394 carries, 2,026 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Even if Murray comes back and his touches are reduced, he will still be the lead back over Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams or any other back they keep (Lance Dunbar), sign or draft. But the disparity in carries from 2014 -- Murray had 392, Randle had 51 -- will not be as great.

If Murray leaves, the same would hold true with a free-agent signing (Mark Ingram?) or a draft pick (Melvin Gordon, Jay Ajayi) as the lead back and Randle and whoever else as the secondary ball carriers.

"I think that generally we are in two-back systems across the league if you look at the practical way it shakes out," Jerry Jones said. "Most of these teams split a running game that approaches the number of rushes we have. They split it. But there are more backs. There are more backs. That adds to what happens. That adds to the answer: how do you address your running game? OK. You don't necessarily expect to have a back carry that kind of load and still have a very successful running game."

Breaking down Cowboys' cap allocation

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
IRVING, Texas -- In the NFL, how teams allocate their assets can go a long way in their success.

As the Dallas Cowboys ponder their major decisions, like Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray; not quite as large decisions, like Doug Free, Jermey Parnell and Rolando McClain; and small decisions, like whether to tender their restricted free agents, asset allocation is huge.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones mentioned it Saturday during a 90-minute discussion with reporters when discussing the Murray talks.

“The only reason to have any equivocation on [re-signing Murray] is that this is pro football and we have limitations on what you can allocate to any position or allocate to your football team, which side of the ball you want to allocate your dollars on,” Jones said. “It’s pretty obviously anybody can add up we got a lot of money allocated to our offense right now. Nothing wrong with that because we can win with a lot of money allocated to our offense, but we've got to be cognizant of the fact we want to improve our defense.”

How are those assets allocated at present?

According to ESPN Stats & Information’s most recent calculations, the Cowboys have 20 players signed on offense totaling $64,803,726 in cap space. Tony Romo accounts for $27.773 million, followed by Tyron Smith at $13.039 million and Jason Witten at $8.512 million.

Ryan Williams ($705,000) and Terrance Williams ($779,968) have the highest cap figures for running backs and wide receivers.

With the Cowboys likely to tag Bryant, add another $13 million cap figure. Murray would also come in at a significant cap figure.

On defense, the Cowboys have 30 players totaling $48,381,143. Brandon Carr carries the highest cap charge at $12.717 million, but he won’t remain at that figure with the Cowboys looking for him to take a pay cut. Sean Lee has a $5.45 million cap figure. Three of the four highest cap figures are on corners, with Morris Claiborne at $5.175 million and Orlando Scandrick at $4.351 million. On the defensive line, Jeremy Mincey ($1.75 million) and Terrell McClain ($1.1 million) carry the highest cap figures.

On special teams the Cowboys have two players -- Dan Bailey and L.P. Ladouceur -- totaling $3,620,000. They signed punter Tom Hornsey to a one-year deal, but his base salary will not count against the top 51 contracts.

The Cowboys have $12.836 million with the recent void of Doug Free's contract and the declining of Henry Melton's $9 million option.

How to maximize Tony Romo's time left

February, 23, 2015
Feb 23
Tony RomoTom Pennington/Getty ImagesThe Cowboys know the window they have with Tony Romo as their quarterback is getting smaller.
IRVING, Texas -- Come sit down inside the Dallas Cowboys' luxury bus.

Go past the leather couches on either side of the hardwood-floor aisle. Make sure you get a good look at one of the three televisions on the walls. Take a look around at the small photos capturing some of the Cowboys’ greatest players.

Grab the seat behind the table, next to the leather swivel chair. That one is for Jerry Jones.

The owner and general manager is in a sharing mood.

“You’ll appreciate this story,” Jones said.

On the night before Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix, Tony Romo was in the swivel chair. Jones was in your seat. Across the aisle was Stephen Jones. Jason Witten might have been there, too. Jason Garrett was around the conversation as well.

“Wee hours of the morning,” Jones said, after the NFL Honors program and another Super Bowl party.

Romo looked at Jones.

“Jerry, see Stephen, he’s got himself about 25-30 years of this ahead. Jason, coach, maybe something similar to that,” Jones remembers Romo saying. “Me, I’m three to five. You’re three to five. We got to stick together. It’s now for us.”

Jones laughs after telling the story.

“He said we got to stick together because these guys are not on the same timeframe,” Jones said. “It’s now for us.”

And that’s the balance the Cowboys face this offseason. Now and the future.

Romo turns 35 in April. He is coming off his best season, leading the NFL in completion percentage and passer rating. He had 34 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. He fulfilled the promise he made in training camp that his best years were ahead of him.

But how long can Romo play at such a high level? Two years? Three? That three- to five-year range? He has had two back surgeries. He played through two transverse process fractures in 2014. He played through torn rib cartilage.

As the Cowboys look at a second potential window of Super Bowl contention in Romo’s career, there is a natural urge to go “all-in,” salary cap be damned. The Cowboys went through quarterbacks the way McDonald’s goes through Big Macs after Troy Aikman retired and they were mostly mediocre and had three straight 5-11 seasons.

When you have a high-level veteran quarterback, it’s about maximizing every year. It’s about taking Romo-friendly even further.

The Cowboys are already willing to expend a $13 million cap figure on wide receiver Dez Bryant with the franchise tag. They want to keep DeMarco Murray, and Jones said he has “flexibility” in the parameters of what it would take to keep the NFL’s leading rusher.

The Cowboys met with Murray’s agent, Bill Johnson, at the combine and will continue dialogue until free agency begins, but the discussions can’t be considered serious or far along at this point. There is a dance that plays out with neither side wanting to show their hand.

Garrett has made it clear he wants Murray back because of what he means to the team. Jones said he wants Murray to spend his career with the Cowboys. There is no doubt everybody at Valley Ranch wants Murray back, but the question is the price.

“Murray is a now decision,” Jones said. “It has everything to do with that kind of thinking. That’s pro-Murray, by the way.”

They also have to keep right tackles Doug Free or Jermey Parnell, as well as a number of other decisions. They need a lot of help on defense, and there could be some quality pass-rushers available.

But it would require the Cowboys to extend themselves against the salary cap now and in the future with no guarantee of success.

“It’s degree,” Jones said. “We aren’t rebuilding by any stretch of the imagination. I say that because that’s what we’re emphatically not doing. We’re trying to improve what we have done last year and to some degree years before. But bottom line is when you talk now, then you could very well spend some money that you’ll be paying in the future.”

Jones' comments almost contradict those of Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ executive vice president and keeper of the salary cap. On several occasions from the NFL scouting combine, he said teams don’t get equal return on the money they have to pay to acquire the top players on the market.

“I’m still a big believer that the answer is not in free agency,” Stephen Jones said.

It all seems to be setting up for some pushback as the Cowboys make their decisions over the next few weeks and months. Last spring Jerry Jones made no secret of his crush on Johnny Manziel. He wanted to take the Texas A&M quarterback, but faced pushback and ultimately the Cowboys took Zack Martin with the 16th pick.

Martin became the first Cowboys rookie to earn All-Pro honors since 1969 and is a cornerstone piece.

Jerry Jones said the what-to-do discussions have been “real healthy,” so far.

“But at the end of the day, if we do have an issue, the nudge which way will be weighted,” Jones said. “Let’s put it like that.”

Does that mean Romo and Jerry and their three- to five-year window will win out?

“Certainly Tony’s excellence, the way he played this year, that coupled [with] where he is with his career gives us every reason to make our decisions based upon now,” Jones said. “I weight it that way. They don’t have to be exclusive of each other, now or in the future, because the future is really just a few more years on out when you’re making personnel decisions.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- When the Dallas Cowboys traded up to take Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft, they thought they had their answer at cornerback for years to come.

As they enter 2015, they have only questions in large part because of Claiborne.

"Mo didn't create it, but his circumstances are problematic for us as we approach what we're doing in the offseason at that position," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.

Claiborne is a candidate to start training camp on the physically unable to perform list as he comes back from a torn patellar tendon. He played in only three games last year before getting hurt. His first two seasons were underwhelming as well.

Claiborne's contract is fully guaranteed but his health sets up an interesting negotiation with Brandon Carr.

Carr is scheduled to make $8 million and count $12.7 million against the salary cap. The Cowboys have met with his agent, Ben Dogra, to discuss a possible paycut, but Jones said, "I don't have anything to report there."

If Carr does not accept a paycut he is likely to be cut and he might find a market that is not willing to spend as much on him as the Cowboys desire in part because of their uncertainty at the position. Carr has started every game he has played for the Cowboys since signing a five-year, $50 million deal in 2012, but he did not have an interception last season.

He played better later in the 2014 season than he did at the beginning, but the Cowboys expected more when they signed him.

Not only is Claiborne's ability to play in question, Sterling Moore is set to be a restricted free agent and the team might not be willing to give him the $1.5 million tender. If they don't, then he would be a free agent.

The draft and free-agent classes at cornerback are not particularly strong either.

"As you well know, this takes two here," Jones said. "It will ultimately fit one way or the other for us. But there's only one part of this thing that could happen that we could do unilaterally. That's one thing. But to have him playing for us if we have dollar considerations than that takes two of us."
INDIANAPOLIS – The Dallas Cowboys have done exhaustive statistical work on the history of running backs, age, pay and wear and tear as they prepared for negotiations with running back DeMarco Murray.

While the Cowboys will have a certain range that they want to pay Murray, owner and general manager Jerry Jones indicated there could be some wiggle room in how high they want to go.

“We want DeMarco enough that I've got some serious flexibility in my bracket,” Jones said, referencing how much the Cowboys might want to spend.

As much as the Cowboys want Dez Bryant for a long time, Jones said the Cowboys “want Murray for his career as well.”

“The only reason to have any equivocation on that is that this is pro football and we have limitations on what you can allocate to any position or allocate to your football team,” Jones said.

Murray led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards, setting the team record for yards in a season. He was also named the NFL’s offensive player of the year.

“There’s no question that Murray is an outstanding football player in my mind,” Jones said. “Our wish is to work something out and we’re going to strive to do that to the extent that we can. There’s some unique circumstances here. He won (offensive player of the year). We had the top rushing game, so relative to values, that creates some things that wouldn’t be there had we not had some of the success that we’ve had.”
INDIANAPOLIS – As much as Dez Bryant would not be wild about the franchise tag, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is not too enthusiastic about it, either.

While the final number is not set, the Cowboys are looking at Bryant counting $13 million against the 2015 salary cap, which could hinder what they do with DeMarco Murray and their ability to sign other players to improve the team.

“I can tell you I’m not that excited about the franchise tag with Dez simply because I’d like to have our agreement and our business in place for a long time to come with Dez,” Jones said.

Jones said he is sensitive to Bryant’s reaction to being tagged but, like executive vice president Stephen Jones and coach Jason Garrett, he does not believe it would impact Bryant’s on-field work.

“I’ve never seen anybody just pout to the extent that they wouldn’t do it over this kind of money,” Jones said. “That usually is not realistic. It’s just too much money. And consequently it’s not set up or packaged the way that parties might want – and I want to emphasize again – it’s not really set up in our best interest at all. There’s a much better way for our future and our cap this year if we didn’t franchise, but this is here when you don’t have your meeting of the minds about how you want to structure something long term. And so if anything it’s in the right situation, it’s a placeholder for addressing it as you move through the future.”

The Cowboys have until March 2 to place the tag on Bryant. They would then have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal.

Jones said he thought the Cowboys and Bryant were close to a deal during the season, only to see the negotiations stop when the receiver changed agents.

The Cowboys have not had any detailed talks with Roc Nation and Tom Condon, who took over from Eugene Parker as Bryant’s representation last November.

“That didn’t work out,” Jones said of a potential deal during the season. “That’s not a criticism. It just didn’t work out. So from the standpoint from where we are there, we’ll just see. Contract negotiations are a funny thing. You shouldn’t measure progress by the latest visit or the fact that things are silent. It takes two, and when an agreement can be reached, it can be done in a matter of hours, and so you’ve got to be careful measuring any degree of interest, any degree of urgency.”
INDIANAPOLIS -- If DeMarco Murray returns to the Dallas Cowboys in 2015, then owner and general manager Jerry Jones would not anticipate the All-Pro running back to have such a large amount of carries.

“I don’t think we would go into a season now with Murray thinking that he was going to have the load that he had last year,” Jones said. “I don’t believe we would.”

Murray led the NFL and set team records with 392 carries and 1,845 yards in 2014, easily outdistancing his previous career highs set in 2013 with 217 carries for 1,121 yards. In the playoffs Murray had 44 more carries for 198 yards. He also had 61 catches in the regular season and postseason.

Murray had at least 24 carries in six of the first eight games but hit that figure -- or more -- three times in the second half of the season. He had four 100-yard games in the final eight games and the Cowboys were more mindful of his work as the season wore on.

“Murray is such a warrior and Murray is such a horse, he’d actually get upset if you took him out of the game,” Jones said. “But it was [not] the thing to do for Murray to let those guys have more touches. Now, why did we go along with it? We just happened to be doing you know what? Winning. We were very successful so it’s hard to make that change.”

If the Cowboys re-sign Murray it will be at a significant cost, so limiting his work seems counterintuitive. But Jones wonders if less work early would make Murray better later.

“I think that’s probably where you would go to as far as that kind of load and you say, ‘Boy, you want to point to playoffs and you have a back like that, OK would you like to maybe saving for some playoff runs?’” Jones said. “Down near the end of the season, you’re saving for some playoffs. Let’s lighten his load a little bit. Does that make any sense? Of course it does. It really does.”

And if the Cowboys are unable to keep Murray, Jones envisions a possible committee to get the job done.

“You may have two backs,” Jones said. “You may have two. I have given you the what-ifs. I don’t want to sound negative about not having Murray.”