One of the many items I want to touch on today is something I reference periodically over the course of the year, but perhaps am guilty of never fully discussing at length.
It is the concept of the four-year conveyor belt of talent for the Dallas Cowboys, or, more accurately, for any NFL franchise under this current collective bargaining agreement.
The four-year conveyor belt is how teams fill their rosters out after they have selected their core players. You have the ability to pick between 8-10 core players, and the other 43-45 players on your roster are all subject to the system that pushes players on and off your roster at the rate of about every four years. And four years go by exceptionally fast.
Let's take a look:
We can use the 2016 or 2017 Dallas Cowboys cap, so for the simplicity of this exercise, let's use 2017. Also, let's assume Tony Romo is still your starting quarterback, because it is easier to explain this all and because he was the original plan at QB1 in 2017, anyway. Also, it is tough to say the Cowboys have made any decisions based on the deduction that he will be gone, yet. I don't believe any real dominoes have fallen with regards to a "post-Romo era" in the contract/business side of things, so roll with me just for this example.
Basically, the Cowboys' core players, in regards to contracts, are the following -- Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Tyrone Crawford, Tyron Smith, Sean Lee, Ezekiel Elliott, Orlando Scandrick, Travis Frederick and Cedric Thornton. That's 10 names, with each of them valued in 2017 at over $4 million. Some are well, well over that mark, but all are over $4 million. If you add their current cap values together, they total at just over $100 million. We could probably add Dan Bailey and Cole Beasley in there, too. Both are at $4 million per season, taking you to 12 bodies at roughly $109 million dollars.
Some simple math and some cap estimates suggest the cap will sit at around $167 million for 2017, with the possibility it might get to $170 million. Let's figure that liberally, we get them to where -- without a Romo move -- they have about $60 million for 41 players. That allows, on average, an expenditure of around $1.4 million per player to fill the remaining 77 percent of your roster. When Romo goes off, Zack Martin will replace him within weeks as perhaps the top contract for a guard in the league.
The Cowboys are actually not an abnormal situation when it comes to this. I think you could grab any team and find out that two-thirds of their money is given to about a dozen top players (give or take a bit). Then, the final third of your money must employ between 75-80 percent of your manpower. It is the rich and the poor of the NFL system. Poor still pays really well, but the idea that there is no middle class is pretty clear. If each of the 53 players were paid the same on a $168 million cap, they would all earn over $3.1 million a year. But that isn't how this works. The top 12 players average $9 million a year, and the bottom 41 hit at $1.4 million per year.
This is where the conveyor belt visual comes in.
The conveyor belt is four years because this is the exact length of the typical NFL rookie contract. First-rounders get a fifth year on their rookie deals, but they don't really matter in this sense because they make a ton of money as rookies. If you take someone at No. 4, like the Cowboys did with Elliott, he will already be among the highest earners on the team and at his position in the entire league in many cases. In the case of Elliott, he was instantly the highest-paid running back at his spot in terms of guaranteed money on his contract. He was also one of the high-earning dozen, as he placed ninth in total value on the Cowboys' roster the moment he stepped into the league.
Four years, which, including the 2017 draft, takes us back only to the 2014 draft. So 2014, 2015, 2016 and now 2017 would be the four years the Cowboys currently have at their disposal to fill out their roster with young, cheap labor.
The reason we did not include 2013 is because all of the draftees they took in 2013 (and that includes undrafted free agents as well, but they often have a five-year window with Ron Leary just expiring from 2012) had their deals expire when Mason Crosby hit the field goal to end Dallas' playoff run. Members of that draft class are now either on extensions -- Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and Jeff Heath -- or they are gone to other teams on fresh contracts, like J.J. Wilcox, and we assume at some point soon Gavin Escobar.
If you keep them, they become big earners in many cases. And if you let them leave, it becomes a priority to fill their spot. That was only four years ago, but that is how this thing works.
And, no sooner do you pick your shiny and new 2017 starlets, then you have to start worrying about the 2014 draft class and their contracts. You have an extra year with Martin, but everyone else -- which is only DeMarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens -- are headed into their "walk" years this season. Yes, that is right, you already have to pay Lawrence to keep him away from free agency, OR you have to ponder replacing him. Already!
That means, Romo included, there are presently only 16 players who joined this team before 2014. That is a staggering reality that many fans are not necessarily aware of. Imagine, the Broncos' visit to Arlington for that amazing 51-48 shootout in 2013 doesn't seem that long ago, right? Well, nearly 40 players on your 2017 roster were not in Dallas when that went down.
So, your 2014 guys are on their "pay or pass" year and the 2015 group -- yes, the group that features Randy Gregory, for Pete's sake (provided there are no NFL exemptions on his service time), as well as Chaz Green and Damien Wilson and Geoff Swaim are all going to be next in just 12 months.
It happens so fast in this league. It explains how you don't open a window for five years, really. That is what we still say in the media, and if you have a special quarterback you certainly operate from a massive advantage, but the future is now in this league. Your roster adds 15-20 new names every single season and loses just as many. Nobody brings everyone back -- even though the media talks like that -- and that is simply how the league's CBA is set up.
The conveyor belt keeps turning. You have to try to keep up.
One under-the-radar note from the weekend was the Cowboys' signing of Byron Bell, a massive offensive lineman who last played for the Titans, for a near-minimal price. He is a very big man and should be able to play guard next year after missing the entire 2016 season with a dislocated ankle injury. Several teams were trying to bring him in, and although he has a real spotty track record -- especially at tackle -- I imagine that a man of his experience level and size should slot right in between Frederick and Smith and be just fine. I assume that pushes La'el Collins out to right tackle, ultimately, in what will be his third season with the team. He has a year of restricted free agency remaining after 2017.
Let's spend a few minutes on Jabrill Peppers, the talented draft prospect from Michigan. Recently, Mike Mayock has called him his best safety available and Mel Kiper has placed him with the Cowboys in the first round of his mock draft. Now, I am not here to suggest those opinions matter anymore than those who think he is going to be a massive bust at the next level, but I will declare that Peppers is, without a doubt, the best player in this draft with the most polarizing viewpoints about his abilities.
It happens every year. Maybe several times every draft season. We all look at the same players and sometimes we all agree this guy will be amazing in the NFL, and sometimes it divides everyone into sides. Last year, it was Joey Bosa. Smart men loved him and other smart men didn't think he was anything too special. Johnny Manziel caused this divide during his draft process. It happens and it usually happens with a guy who enters the process as a "big name." This happens most often when we have to use projections to guess what he will do -- since his college situation did not ask him to do what we would assume would be his most likely role in the NFL.
Well, this year it is the kid from Michigan. He was asked to play linebacker most of the year by Jim Harbaugh even though he is 5-foot-11, 213 pounds. This had him doing things linebackers do and not doing things that defensive backs do. That means he did have all sorts of tackles for loss and sacks and plays at the line of scrimmage, but he seldom showed off his ability to man-cover down the field and get interceptions (he had one). It also showed he does not have the size to deal with the big tight ends, most likely.
So, very smart draft minds suggest he has no spot. They may even want to convert him to a running back to take advantage of his impressive ball skills and quickness in tight spaces.
I am not one of those people. I love him at the hybrid spot. I think he is playing a position that is the future of the NFL. We talked Friday about how nickel is the new base, and that three safeties -- including two in the box -- looks like the direction we are heading with Deone Bucannon, Mark Barron and Shaq Thompson and all of these defensive backs who make plays up on the line, like Troy Polamalu did for so long at 5-10, 207. Call them a safety or a linebacker. Labels are silly in today's NFL, where we call big receivers "tight ends" even though they don't block all season. Football players who make plays are vital, and I am betting hard that Peppers is going to do that.
But the team had better be creative and committed. Is Dallas that team? Probably not. Would I take him at No. 28? I would need to know who is there, but all things being equal, I have no problem with calling him a first-round player. Sign me up. But there is no question you will have others telling you he isn't among their top 100 players. I guess time will tell. I loved Bosa, by the way. But I also expected Manziel to be pretty good, too.
And, in Tony Romo news on Day 18 of the standoff, there is no real news. What a bizarre situation for all involved.