Sports

Cowboys free agency 2022: Future of Michael Gallup creates questions that tie into Amari Cooper and others


In the days and weeks ahead of Super Bowl LVI, you would’ve thought the Dallas Cowboys were en route to SoFi Stadium for The Big Game — considering how they were still the main draw for several television and radio shows after having long been eliminated from the playoffs — headlines surrounding Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn leading the charge. The reality is they were on the couch with 30 other NFL teams, and they must get to work on trying to figure out how to keep the band together while also improving it to prevent another postseason collapse in 2022. 

That begins with figuring out the futures of players like Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, two parts of their three-headed hydra at wide receiver. Although Cooper is still under contract, the offseason speculation wheel has already begun spinning wildly in his direction. Some are of the belief the four-time Pro Bowler might be on his way out of Dallas. 

As is stands, sources tell CBS Sports the team’s intention is to keep Cooper in tow for next season, but that might come with a contract restructure to help aid in their salary cap crunch. (The Cowboys are currently a projected $21.45 million over what’s expected to be a $208 million ceiling for each NFL team.)

Cooper is set to hit the Cowboys salary cap for $22 million in 2022, and while there are millions in savings to be had in releasing or trading him, the team can still garner millions in savings by doing a restructure, as seen in a the comparisons below. 

FYI: Signing bonuses were paid upfront and are simply prorated over the length of the contract for cap management purposes. All figures provided courtesy of OverTheCap.com.

Restructure

2022

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$0

$12,586,667

2023

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$0

$9,417,500

2024 $20,000,000 $2,000,000 $0 $22,000,000 $0 $0

This is the most feasible trigger for the Cowboys to pull as the calendar readies to flip to March. 

They’d gain more than $12.5 million toward the salary cap while keeping one of the best receivers in football on their roster. It’s a win-win situation, barring some sort of irreparable emotional fracture between the two, but nothing at the moment indicates the frustration on both sides has escalated to that point. With the unknown variable of Gallup’s future looming, the last thing the Cowboys need is to go from having three No. 1 receivers to only one (Lamb) and a mix of backups in the span of a few weeks. In such a pivotal season for head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, hamstringing them in such a way could be the death note for an offense that was already waffling like a pancake’s rival to end the season.

Pre-June 1 transaction (release/trade)

2022

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$6,000,000

$16,000,000

2023

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$4,000,000

$18,000,000

2024

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$2,000,000

$20,000,000

Now let’s discuss the other options regarding Cooper.

His five-year, $100 million contract has an out that kicks in this offseason, one that makes the cap savings for such a trade or release far exceed the dead money hit in any respective year going forward up to its expiration following 2024. As you can see, the Cowboys could gain $16 million in savings by releasing or trading the Pro Bowler before June 1 of this year, but would incur a $6 million dead money penalty for their troubles. In all, they’d have to weigh if it’s more practical to keep a receiver who has five 1,000-yard seasons in seven tries, and who delivered eight touchdowns for them in 2021 despite offensive struggles, or to land an extra [measly] $3.4 million to let him be great for someone else while hoping they can replace his production and skillset (good luck).

Post-June 1 transaction (release or trade)

2022

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$2,000,000

$20,000,000

2023

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$2,000,000

$20,000,000

2024

$20,000,000

$2,000,000

$0

$22,000,000

$2,000,000

$20,000,000

This is where things truly get interesting, admittedly.

Should the Cowboys hold off on potentially splitting from Cooper until after June 1, they’d be on the hook solely for his prorated bonus of $2 million and gain a hefty $20 million in savings toward the cap. The problem with this is twofold, however, because it presumes there’s a team willing to fork over $20 million of their own cap to acquire Cooper — a reworked deal notwithstanding — and that’s a tougher sell. It also doesn’t resolve the issue of replacing Cooper’s production, so while the added $7+ million over restructuring him is much more attractive than comparing the restructure to a pre-June 1 move, it’s not a decision made inside of a vacuum. How would it impact Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott, for example, should he lose either/both Cooper and Gallup?

Considering the Cowboys can and likely will pull the trigger on restructuring Prescott’s deal, a move that would free up $15.17 million, there’s no reason to lather over gaining $7+ million more to lose Cooper when the difference can be gained elsewhere, and exceedingly easily, at that. To that point, they can also gain $11.92 million by restructuring DeMarcus Lawrence’s contract in 2022 — making for roughly $27 million in savings between those two players alone. 

All told, restructuring Cooper, Prescott and Lawrence (a player the Cowboys are also intending to retain, sources say) would toss a whopping sum of $39.68 million onto the cap table for Dallas — instantly putting them $18.23 million under the cap for free agency spending while also retaining two cornerstone players in Cooper and Lawrence.

Of all mentioned, however, Lawrence provides the most/only truly attractive financial exit for the Cowboys, but not without penalty, as is the overarching theme, it seems. Releasing or trading the All-Pro pass rusher before June 1 carries a dead money hit of $19 million (ouch) for 2022, but the team would save $8 million toward the cap. Those numbers literally flip after June 1, when the dead money hit falls to $8 million and the savings rise to $19 million (whoa). 

But similar to Cooper’s contract, restructuring would also yield millions in savings (with no dead money hit for 2022) and Lawrence went on a tear following his return from a broken foot last season — making it difficult to fathom owner Jerry Jones divorcing his primary war daddy for a few extra million dollars that can be gained elsewhere. Add in the need at the position already and the fact that, as Jones can attest, war daddies don’t grow on trees… or on tacos …and shedding Lawrence becomes a difficult proposition to stomach. 

But wait, there’s more.

Let’s talk about two-time NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott, who looked electric to begin the season prior to suffering what was ultimately revealed to be a torn PCL in his knee but attempting to battle through it when the team should’ve shut him down for a few weeks to allow it to heal, but didn’t. Releasing or trading Elliott would be transactional malpractice, to say the least, and especially only one year removed from restructuring his record-setting deal.

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If the Cowboys were to release Elliott ahead of June 1, they’d be smacked with $30.08 million in dead money and lose $11.86 million against the cap, effectively moving in the wrong direction. Wait until after June 1 and yes, the dead money hit is reduced to a still thorny $18.22 million, and they’d break even toward/against the cap with a net sum of $0.00. 

So how about a trade? OK, let’s look into it.

Trading Elliott before June would only save the Cowboys $540,000 but leave them strapped with $17.68 million in dead money, leaving the only palatable option as a trade after June 1, when the dead money hit drops to $5.82 million and the cap savings buoys for 2022 to $12.4 million; and that is the only actual out here (if they wanted to take it). But, again, they could save nearly as much by restructuring him one more time this offseason — having shown they’re not adverse to multiple restructures (e.g., Tyron Smith) to kick the can down the road for when the league’s salary cap is presumably exponentially higher with each passing year. 

They could also/either restructure Martin’s, again, and that’s more attractive considering his potential NFL lifespan — gaining $7.15 million if they did. 

Restructuring Elliott’s deal this offseason would net them $9.09 million in savings with no dead money hit, so a quick math check is in order here. Should the Cowboys restructure Cooper, Prescott, Lawrence and Elliott, they’d enter free agency with … wait for it… $48.77 million in cap savings for 2022, putting them $27.32 million under the cap without losing a core player. And that’s before they begin releasing mid- to lower-level talent via usual NFL attrition/bookkeeping.

It’s all such a no-brainer from both the bookkeeping and team chemistry/talent perspectives, and especially considering the Cowboys aren’t expected to be big spenders in free agency (they never are, so don’t expect that approach to change this offseason), so most of their funds will be aimed at trying to keep Gallup, Randy Gregory (who can be considered a transitional tag or franchise tag candidate at a projected $16.62 million or $20.19 million, respectively, but who the team would prefer to lock up for the long haul), and others like Cedrick Wilson onboard. 

Sidebar: A transitional tag allows a player to negotiate with other teams but gives the Cowboys right of first refusal, meaning they can match the highest offer and keep the player in question. (It’s not likely tight end Dalton Schultz would receive either tag, and has probably priced himself out of Dallas.)

The obvious downside of the aforementioned restructures is it can make it more prohibitive to move on from a player in 2023, but you must weigh that against what will likely be another and possibly bigger leap in the league’s salary cap, upwards of a possible $230 million. This could also be the Cowboys version of “going all-in” when you assess just how insanely talented their stable of free agents actually is. They weren’t eliminated from the playoffs because of lack of talent, but instead because of lack of execution and questionable play-calling.

Circling back to Elliott, in speaking to sources regarding the All-Pro running back, the Cowboys aren’t keen on the idea of moving on from Elliott right now, and you can see why from a financial standpoint, but they also saw what he looked like last season prior to the injury and are confident he’ll return to that form for kickoff in September. So, barring something wildly unexpected on Cooper, Lawrence and Elliott, the team’s goal is for all three to be in uniform going forward, largely because there’s not much sense (there is some, but not much) in divorcing either of them.

That brings us back to Gallup and the list of other Cowboys free agents.

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Gallup has made it clear time and again he wants to remain in Dallas, and his relationship with Prescott helps anchor that sentiment to the concrete. That said, he also wants to be compensated fairly, which isn’t an unreasonable ask for a 1,000-yard receiver. The hiccup here is obvious though, because Gallup suffered a torn ACL in the team’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, and that means he’ll not only spend his entire offseason rehabbing with the hope of being ready for kickoff in September, but it changes the entire conversation surrounding what type of offer he’d receive from not only the Cowboys — who are still committed to keeping him — but also from teams around the league (because he won’t be able to pass a physical for months to come).

For his part, Gallup isn’t naive to it all, a dynamic talent who suffered a brutal contract year that also included a calf injury from Week 1 that sidelined him multiple games. He hopes the Cowboys are more focused on his total body of work, though.

“I hope I did enough here in Dallas over the last four years to get what I deserve,” Gallup told Jonathan Adams of Heavy.com in early February. “I know this past year wasn’t the best for me or anything, but I hope I’ve done enough and put enough on film to where the injury that I just had isn’t going to weigh me down too much. So, that’s what I’m hoping to get out of free agency. … I know the Cowboys enjoy me being on their team.

“Honestly, they haven’t really said a whole lot to me [about the future]. I just have that feeling that they might work with me on it, they might work with me on it. So, we’ll see how it goes.”

For clarity, the Cowboys spoke with none of their looming free agents during the season about potential extensions, sources tell CBS Sports, so it’s not anything exclusive to Gallup. That is set to quickly change, however, with the new league year rapidly approaching and a long list of players to sort through — particularly at wideout. After re-signing Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown to one-year deals in 2021, the former had another impressive season, taking advantage of Gallup’s absence to raise his own stock; but there were also missteps by Wilson that leave you wondering if he’s capable of consistently being a game-changer or if he’s simply a potent WR3 who can step into a bigger role at times.

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Toss in the intriguing talent of Malik Turner and, sure, the Cowboys have some nice depth at the position, or rather they had it, because there’s no guarantee Gallup, Wilson or Brown are in North Texas in 2022 (inherently, again, applying that much more pressure to stick with Cooper). 

For Gallup, well, he’s definitely hoping for a multi-year deal, but he knows the circumstance might prevent it from happening for at least one more season, and he’s willing to sign a shorter deal to prove himself fully healthy and explosive after the torn ACL, as long as the numbers make sense.

“I think somebody could give me a long-term deal, and I think if I need to prove it again I’m pretty sure I can do that, too,” he said.

As mentioned, count Prescott in for vehemently wanting Gallup to remain a Cowboy.

“Man, Dak’s been telling me I can’t go anywhere since the season started,” Gallup added, noting Prescott also suffered a season-ending injury before signing a long-term deal. “I definitely know he wants me back here, but he also told me that when he had his injury that he still got what he was owed. So, I’m not too worried about it in that perspective, but he’s definitely been in my ear a lot telling me that I need to be here. 

“I’ll just definitely take that into consideration.”

Those who are peeking over at the Odell Beckham Jr. camp, as one relevant example, would do well to understand he has also reportedly suffered a torn ACL — in the Super Bowl against the Cincinnati Bengals — marking the second time in 16 months he’s torn the same ACL. This means he’s not only older than Gallup, but also comes strapped with more durability concerns and isn’t the downfield, jump-ball threat Gallup is (a key part of Dallas’ offense not provided by Cooper or Lamb). It’s safe to say teams will shy away from offering Beckham a multi-year deal, and if Gallup can be retained on a one-year deal that allows a revisit in 2023 — do it.

And do it now.

It’s all the very beginning of a complex web of dialogue that will get underway at The Star in Frisco in the next several days and weeks, and with the understanding that the Cowboys can’t keep everybody. But that doesn’t mean they have to part ways with everybody, with the numbers working in their favor heading into free agency — assuming they pull triggers that are tied to guns aimed away from their own chest. 

It’s a bang-or-bust offseason to come in Dallas, including giving the usual room to a newly-extended Will McClay to work his magic in the 2022 NFL Draft. Just don’t make his job more difficult by creating need at positions where there currently isn’t much/any — e.g., receiver or defensive end — knowing you have glaring issues on the offensive line and at linebacker beside All-Pro linebacker and 2021 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons.

Now reload the clip and improve your aim, because the target is Super Bowl LVII — not simply the playoffs.





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