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The Cap-Related Secret Behind Cowboys’ ‘Replacement’ Draft Picks

Mike Fisher for 105.3 The Fan | CBSDFW.com
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IRVING (105.3 THE FAN) – Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett sat at the podium in a late-night NFL Draft press conference ostensibly to celebrate the second-round selection of tight end Gavin Escobar. Yet Garrett repeatedly steered the conversation back to deferential bows to the Cowboys’ established icon at the position, Jason Witten.

“Jason Witten is arguably the best tight end in the National Football League,’’ Garrett said, time and time again … as if to suggest that the drafting of Escobar has nothing to do with eventually replacing Witten.

But it does. Garrett doth protest too much. Escobar’s presence has almost everything to do with eventually replacing Witten.

And third-rounder Terrance Williams’ presence has almost everything to do with eventually replacing receiver Miles Austin.

And fourth-rounder B.W. Webb’s presence has almost everything to do with eventually replacing nickel corner Orlando Scandrick.

And fifth-rounder Joseph Randle’s presence has almost everything to do with eventually replacing running back DeMarco Murray.

This is the part of the Cowboys’ draft that Jerry and Stephen Jones indisputably got right, the part that is beyond the scope of the personnel department. The scouts rate players; the Joneses are charged with listening to those rankings while also trying to “Asset-Manage’’ the entire organization.

Consider:

*While Witten is indeed an elite player and is signed through 2017, a source indicates his contract is structured in such a way that Dallas could escape from it without much penalty before the start of 2015 season. (My man OCC of “Blogging The Boys’’ notes it would only cost $1.824 million in prorated signing bonus to cut Witten after the 2015 season.) So instead of paying Witten about $7 million a year at that point, then can conceivably hand the job to Escobar. A second-round pick right now will be paid approximately $800,000 a year.

*Starting in 2014, Austin’s salaries for the final three years on his contract are $5.5 million, $6.9 million and $11.4 million. You can imagine the appeal of replacing him with Williams. A third-round pick right now will be paid approximately $500,000.

*Scandrick’s salary next spring jumps to $3.5 million. But cutting him would cost $5.7 million. (As OCC notes, that could be mitigated by making him a June 1 cut). Scandrick’s release can more likely come just before the 2015 season, when his salary jumps to $5 million, and the cost of cutting him drops to $3.6 million. Instead of paying him that $5 mil, Dallas can replace him with Webb. A fourth-round pick right now will be paid approximately $465,000.

*Murray’s 2014 salary is a bargain just $755,469, as he will be playing on the final year of his rookie contract. But if Randle pans out, he’ll be available to replace Murray at a cost of less than $500,000 a year – and Dallas won’t feel obliged to re-up a potentially fragile player at the vulnerable-to-injury position of running back.

Just as Dallas is trying to manage its cap now by getting Doug Free’s cost down so linebacker Sean Lee can be given an extension this summer (something to watch for at training camp), the Cowboys have their eyes on extensions for young standouts Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith, both of whom would be good fits for new deals in 2015.

So all of this automatically signals “death’’ for the likes of Witten, Austin, Scandrick and Murray? That’s a bit morbid. So let’s say it another way: The Cowboys’ cap-minded selections of Escobar, Williams, Webb and Randle signal “life’’ for Dallas’ future salary cap.

(©2013 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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