The Cowboys enter the offseason period with intrigue surrounding the future of wide receiver Amari Cooper. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
PLAYER CONTRACTS PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Can the Cowboys Afford Amari Cooper’s Contract?

The Dallas front office has hesitated to commit to the star wideout long-term. Let’s discuss Jerry Jones’ options — including moving on from Amari Cooper and his huge contract.

In so many ways, it’s good to be the Dallas Cowboys. They’re the single most valuable sports franchise in the world. They play in a state-of-the-art stadium. They just won the NFC East for the first time since 2018.

But if the Boys are going to improve upon their 2021 campaign and push even harder next season, owner/GM Jerry Jones and Vice President Stephen Jones have to make a strong, potentially uncomfortable decision about Amari Cooper’s contract and his future with the team.

The star wideout joined the team via trade from the Raiders during the 2018 season and eventually signed a five-year, $100 million contract to lock things in with Big D through the 2024 season — but recent rumblings suggest that all options are on the table with regards to his tenure at AT&T Stadium. Including the possibility that he’ll not only be playing somewhere else when Week 1 rolls around, but that the team will simply opt to release him.

Bet let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Here’s what you need to know about the curious case of the Cowboys and Amari Cooper.

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Amari Cooper Contract Details & Salary

All dollar figures via Spotrac.

Terms: 5 years, $100,000,000
Average annual value: $20,000,000
Guaranteed money: $60,000,000

2022 salary: $20,000,000
2022 cap hit: $22,000,000
2022 dead cap money: $6,000,000

Total NFL earnings: $76,672,334

The Cowboys have paid Cooper $40,000,000 over the first two seasons of his five-year deal. Here’s what things look like over the next three seasons:

Year-by-year terms of Amari Cooper’s current contract (via Spotrac)

The key here is “dead cap” money, which refers to the amount a team would still owe against the salary cap for the player even if he were to be released immediately. In the first two years of his deal, the structure of Cooper’s bonuses and guarantees produced a hypothetical dead cap number even higher than his effective annual salary.

That all changes this season, and continues to de-escalate through the end of his contract with the Cowboys. Stephen Jones and Co. could release Cooper today and face just $6,000,000 in dead cap compared to a $22,000,000 cap hit if he plays out the season, an effective savings of $16,000,000.

So, that becomes the ultimate question: Is an extra $16,000,000 in salary flexibility worth more value than what Cooper would be able to produce on the field?

Jones doesn’t have an answer quite yet. At least not one he’s willing to share with you, me, and Cowboys Nation.

What Are the Cowboys’ Options?

Threading the needle on this big Amari Cooper decision comes down to three options:

  1. Keep Cooper and run it back for at least one more year with a team that won the NFC East, biting the bullet on the cap hit. It would be possible to get Cooper to agree to restructure his deal, converting a portion of his base salary into bonus money to open up more cap space.
  2. Attempt a trade and get something for him in return, even if it’s modest
  3. Cut Cooper and use the freed-up cap money for free agency

As things stand, the Cowboys are in the red in terms of 2022 salary cap space, approximately $26,000,000 above the estimated $208,200,000 cap threshold for next season. And on March 20 — four days after the start of the new NFL league year and the free agency period — Cooper’s $20,000,0000 salary for the year becomes guaranteed.

Cooper is a four-time Pro Bowler and a focal point of Mike McCarthy’s offense. He tied his career high in receiving touchdowns (8) in 2021 despite missing two games. He’s a legit weapon, to say the least. But as to whether he sticks around, let’s apply some logic:

First, the likelihood that there’s a team out there willing to give up trade assets to acquire Cooper and take on his significant salary is low.

Second, the Cowboys have several key free agents that would also need to get paid lest they depart for a bag elsewhere, like Randy Gregory, Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Dalton Schultz, and Michael Gallup. Freeing up cap space is a must, and Cooper’s dead money number is vastly lower than high-priced teammates like DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Elliott, and La’el Collins.

With all this in mind, the Cowboys could go for broke by bringing back Cooper and, say, using the franchise tag on Randy Gregory to keep their powder dry for next season, when the receiver’s dead cap number goes down to a tidy $4,000,000. That won’t make Gregory happy, but if the team envisions a narrowing championship window with an offensive core of Dak Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper, it keeps them from over-committing and torpedoing their cap situation for several years to come.

At the moment, this plan feels more feasible than cutting Cooper, given that such a move would have to come before a March 20 deadline. Based on everything we know right now, it just feels too soon.

But if the season gets rolling and the guy just isn’t producing, expect the Cooper trade buzz to pick up again just as it did with the Raiders in 2018.

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