The Dallas Cowboys took the first step in what is certainly one of the tougher NFL roster-building challenges in years by signing defensive end Demarcus Lawrence this week to a five-year, $105 million contract.
Next up for the team and owner Jerry Jones: make decisions on potential long-term extensions for quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, linebacker Jaylon Smith, cornerback Byron Jones, defensive lineman Maliek Collins and right tackle La’el Collins.
Clearly, all of those can’t be completed in the next year. Elliott might have to wait until next offseason, and both Collinses could be allowed to walk away.
But Dallas’s situation provides a good case study into the decisions NFL teams will have to make in building their lineups in coming years, amid rising salaries at every position and a growing salary cap that this year is at $188.2 million. During the league’s recent owners’ meetings, I polled more than a dozen general managers and salary cap negotiators to get a sense for how teams plan to approach roster construction, including how many players they can employ on deals of $10 million or more per year and the positions they will prioritize.
Here are the latest strategies of NFL roster-building, followed by a look at the teams dealing with some of the bigger challenges in the coming year.
You can pay six to eight players $10 million or more per year.
GMs and cap experts said teams should limit the combined cap number for their top eight or so players to around $80 million, so there is around $100 million available for the rest of the roster, including practice squad and injured players.
Using the Cowboys as an example, it’s clear how difficult this can be. Guard Zack Martin makes $14 million per year, left tackle Tyron Smith $12.2 million and center Travis Frederick $9.4 million. Add in Lawrence and then a Prescott extension worth $25 million to $30 million per year, and you can see how it will be hard for Dallas to keep everybody. The team also almost certainly will want to figure something out with Cooper, for whom it traded a first-round pick last season.
The five positions you have to pay the most are quarterback, edge rusher, wide receiver, cornerback and offensive tackle.
While Dallas has a lot invested along its offensive line, the teams that most closely follow the above positional rules include the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Chargers.
Structure contracts that allow you to move on after a year or two.
Because of the rising cost of top players, cap managers are conscious of structuring agreements so that teams have the flexibility to move on quickly if a player doesn’t work out. This is most apparent in unrestricted free agency. This year, only three players received skill guarantees into the third years of their contracts, meaning they can be released after two seasons. There will continue to be more one-year deals, which give teams even more cap flexibility.
Be willing to trade players near the end of their rookie contracts.
We have seen more and more teams be aggressive in their willingness to trade away players nearing the end of their rookie deals, once a determination has been made that they won’t be signing them to long-term extensions.
Take advantage of the comp pick system.
While there often can be an overemphasis placed on the NFL’s compensation pick system, there are clear benefits to not overpaying to retain players on second or third contracts and instead receiving draft choices as early as the third round after those players sign expensive deals in free agency. Teams willing to show discipline in not doling out big contracts are rewarded with additional picks and cap flexibility, and they can be a nice solution for teams that already have several players signed to deals of $10 million or more per year.
Which teams, besides the Cowboys, are facing some of the bigger roster construction challenges? Let’s take a look:
— The Seattle Seahawks have seven players making more than $10 million a year, but safety Kam Chancellor’s $12 million average comes off the books this summer because of his neck problems and wide receiver Doug Baldwin’s $11.5 million salary could be jeopardized by his third surgery of the offseason. Meanwhile, quarterback Russell Wilson gave the Seahawks until Monday to get him a long-term deal, and the team appears willing to pay him more than Aaron Rodgers’s $33.5 million per year. Frank Clark is earning $17.1 million as a franchise-tagged defensive end and could get more than $19 million a year in an extension. The team also would like to do deals for middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and defensive tackle Jarran Reed.
— For years, the Chicago Bears didn’t have starters worthy of big second contracts. They now have five players making $10 million-plus: edge rusher Khalil Mack, wide receiver Allen Robinson, cornerback Kyle Fuller and defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. Coming up for negotiation are members of their 2016 draft class: edge rusher Leonard Floyd, center Cody Whitehair and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard. They are in the middle of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s affordable rookie contract, so they can plan out their cap without panicking.
— The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a tough spot. They were tight against the cap this year, with it being quarterback Jameis Winston’s fifth-year option season and six other players making $10 million or more. That is why defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is available in a trade.
— The Minnesota Vikings lead the league with nine players making $10 million or more, including six on defense. That’s why it was an upset that they were able to keep linebacker Anthony Barr at $13.5 million a year. Any future deals could cause some sacrifices on defense.
— The Atlanta Falcons may have to pay $20 million a year to extend wide receiver Julio Jones, and a long-term contract for defensive tackle Grady Jarrett will be steep. Coming up after that will be tough deals for safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones. The Falcons have five $10 million-plus players.
— The Jacksonville Jaguars had to sacrifice Pro Bowl defenders Tashaun Gipson and Malik Jackson to sign Nick Foles at quarterback and dump Blake Bortles. They still have six Pro Bowl selections on defense and seven $10 million players. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey is on deck next for a contract.
— The Kansas City Chiefs announced during free agency that they had to make roster sacrifices to create room for long-term contracts for good young players such as wide receiver Tyreek Hill and defensive tackle Chris Jones — and eventually MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes. As a result, the Chiefs unloaded edge rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford and allowed cornerback Steven Nelson to sign with Pittsburgh.
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