When Free Agency hits, it is always fun to watch as a Cowboys Fan. Every top free agent gets tied to the club whether the team needs him or not. There were even crazy social media messages that talked about trading rookie LB sensation Leighton Vander Esch for WR Antonio Brown. Whenever a high profile name is cut from a team, the messages immediately start that the Cowboys can use him. It even happened with the news that the Ravens released WR Michael Crabtree. The twitter talks and graphic images of him wearing the star have already surfaced.
There is one name that has been tied to the Cowboys since his famous locker room chase, telling the club to “come get me!” Yes, it is none other than Safety Earl Thomas.
No one is questioning the skill level of Earl Thomas. He is still one of the best in the game. Could he take this defense to the next level? Most likely. Especially when it is taken into account he would be reuniting with his secondary coach, Kris Richard, who is now on the Cowboys Defense staff, and likely to be the next defensive coordinator. This issue isn’t his talent or any of that. The issue is the salary cap, as it usually is.
The NFL has a hard cap. That means a team can’t just go and spend as much as they want. They must allocate resources carefully. Earl Thomas is just not a luxury the Cowboys can afford right now.
Many say or think Thomas will certainly be open to taking a “hometown” discount to play in Big D. Here is the question I pose. Why would he when other teams will offer him more money and years than what the Cowboys will be willing to offer?
First, the Cowboys will have approximately $49.2m in cap space for this upcoming Free Agency period. Cowboys fans haven’t seen almost $50m in cap space, well…..ever. Jerry Jones would constantly max out caps annually. Whether he was signing the top free agent to generate the “splash” he so loved or restructuring deals to get the “splash” signing. To Jones’ defense, salary cap couldn’t be carried from year to year until recently. If cap wasn’t used, a club lost it.
I do not favor restructuring, as I find it to be a “credit card” solution and, ultimately, the bill always comes due at some point. This generally leads to ballooned cap hits, with heavy dead money implications. A prime example would be Tony Romo. He was on the Cowboys books last year for almost $10m in dead money, and he didn’t take a snap for the team in almost two years and was retired!
A market is dictated by the last deal signed. With that said, Earl Thomas’ agent will point directly to the Eric Berry deal that was signed when Berry was 28 years in 2017. It was a 6-year deal for $78m and $40m guaranteed. That is an average annual salary of $13m. As much as people want to put a hometown discount for Thomas to Dallas, it is his agent’s duty and responsibility to get him the best deal possible.
How can one argue not to use Berry’s deal as a base? It can easily be debated that Thomas has had a better, more available career than Berry. Ok, so Thomas is 29 years old. Berry was 28 when he inked this 6-year extension. Instead of Thomas getting six years, he likely gets five years. Thomas can come back home to Texas and get his money….with the Houston Texans, not the Dallas Cowboys.
The biggest deterrent to signing Thomas is that the Cowboys need to re-sign their own. DE Tank Lawrence has played one year under the franchise tag. Will he play another under it or hold out, a la Leveon Bell? He will fall in the long term contract range of Von Miller (6yrs/$114.1m/$70m guaranteed, $19m average) and Khalil Mack (6yrs/$141m/$90 guaranteed, $23.5m average). As you can see, there is quite an annual gap between both of them. Tank will easily be north of $20m annually.
Dak Prescott is in the last year of his deal. Regardless if Cowboys fans love him or not, he will be a QB worth about $25m annually because of the inflated QB market. Case Keenum was making $18m this past year, as an example of the costs these QBs are. Blake Bortles is at $18m annually. If the Cowboys wait another year, his price tag could go up even higher. This is a deal the front office wants to get done sooner rather than later. Between Tank and Dak, we have pretty much burned thru the available cap space at about $45m.
The Cowboys can create an approximately $23m more in cap space by cutting six players. Those players being Tyrone Crawford (saves $7m as June 1 cut), Sean Lee (saves $7m), Allen Hurns (saves $5m), Jeff Heath (saves $2m), and Joe Thomas (saves just under $2m).
Great! We got more space! Let’s get Earl Thomas!!!
Hold on now!
Amari Cooper, who Dallas traded a 1st round pick for, will be a free agent in 2020. The Cowboys will need to extend him. New All-Pro CB Byron Jones will be a free agent too. Those two players alone can easily be $30m between the two of them. Not to mention La’el Collins, Anthony Brown, and much of the OL depth will all be free agents in 2020. Jaylon Smith and Randy Gregory will be restricted free agents in 2020, being neither have 4 accrued seasons under their belts.
In the end, while having Earl Thomas would be a great luxury for this defense, it would be just that, a luxury. This is no way to say Earl Thomas should not be signed but as it can be easily illustrated, the Cowboys have plenty of funds to allocate to keep their free agents. They are still making the “big splash,” but with their players. Re-signing Tank would be signing one of the best pass rushers in the game. That’s quite a “splash.”