For roughly two decades, the Dallas Cowboys earned the reputation as one of most free spending teams in the NFL, signing and re-signing players to exorbitant guaranteed sums all in the hopes of retaining the Super Bowl glory of the early and mid-1990s.
Yet the Cowboys have now picked an interesting and crucial time to exercise some semblance of fiscal caution.
Team executive vice president Stephen Jones told reporters Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine that the team is leaning towards placing the franchise tag on receiver Dez Bryant rather than signing him to a long-term contract.
"Right now we're probably leaning that way," Jones said. "But that doesn't mean it won't change.
"We'll probably wait 'til the midnight hour to make that decision."
It could be a negotiating tactic since Dallas’ negotiations with Bryant and his agents have thus far gone nowhere, and the team could very well balk at the idea, but Bryant tweeted his apparent displeasure with Jones’ comments and essentially questioned the team’s dedication to him.
Bryant is clearly unhappy with the Cowboys, but considering their current salary cap situation, tagging their star receiver appears to be the wise decision in the short and long term.
Dallas is coming off its best season in more than a decade, having claimed their first playoff victory since 2009, and Bryant played a huge role with an NFL-best 16 receiving touchdowns.
But tagging Bryant now, and avoiding the massive amount of guaranteed money he expects to garner in free agency, gives Dallas flexibility to improve next season and beyond.
For one, the Cowboys need to bolster a secondary that ranked No. 26 last season and a pass rush that accumulated only 28.0 sacks, the fourth lowest mark in the NFL.
Dallas, already possessing $17.2 million in salary cap space, could be angling for extra cap room to sign such top defensive backs like the New England Patriots' Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty, and the Houston Texans' Kareem Jackson, just to name a few. There are also a number of pass rushers hitting the open market, like the Green Bay Packers' B.J. Raji and the Buffalo Bills' Jerry Hughes.
By signing Bryant, though, the Cowboys reduce their chances of signing other top-flight free agents.
Bryant and his agents are likely pushing for as much guaranteed money as possible, but Dallas would need to restructure several players’ deals in order to meet Bryant’s demands and still keep enough cap space to re-sign running back DeMarco Murray, right tackles Doug Free and Jeremy Parnell, and defensive end Anthony Spencer, among many others.
The Cowboys are already on the hook for $11.7 million in dead money next season, and restructuring most players’ contracts will likely inflate that number.
In the long run, the Cowboys are risking their relationship with Bryant, who has racked up 56 touchdowns since he was drafted 24th overall in 2010. The Cowboys, however, can’t completely mortgage the team’s future for him.
Though he will be paid like an elite receiver, the franchise tag only covers Bryant for one year and doesn’t provide the type of security and guaranteed dollars like a long-term contract.
Teams can apply the franchise tag to their players beginning Monday and through March 2, eight days before the start of the new league year and free agency.
A device that allows teams to keep a player if they can’t negotiate a new contract, the tag is calculated as either the average of the top five salaries at a given position or 120 percent of the player’s salary from the previous season. Whichever is larger goes to said player for one year.
Since the league hasn’t officially set the salary cap ceiling for next season, it’s unknown exactly how much the tag for wide receivers will cost next season, but NFL.com estimated Bryant stands to make $12.8 million in 2015.