The Dallas Cowboys and the other 31 NFL teams will have a salary cap of $224.8 million for the 2023-2024 season. 
Unlike the National Basketball Association which allows their teams to go over the cap number in some situations, the NFL uses a “hard cap” which forbids teams from spending more than $224.8 million. As of March 2023, the Cowboys were over this cap number and must renegotiate or release players to be “cap compliant.”
While my football career ended in high school, the sport of football, particularly the team building and cap management side of the game continues to fascinate me. The Cowboys are in a challenging spot with a competitive team and a demanding owner that craves another Super Bowl title. But Dallas has made some questionable choices in recent years, and must now make some tough decisions to stay competitive but under the salary cap.
In this article, we’ll look at how the NFL determines what the cap will be each season, and how they managed the Covid-19 pandemic without the revenue from fans in the stands. We’ll also discuss what Dallas can do to get under the salary cap, and what players may need to have their contracts re-negotiated if they don’t want to be released.
- The Dallas Cowboys and the other 31 teams have a salary cap of $224.8 million for the 2023-2024 season.
- The number is determined based on league revenue once the player’s portion of the profits and costs have been subtracted.
- The Cowboys entered the 2023 offseason over the cap, but re-negotiating or releasing overpaid players like running back Ezekiel Elliot would give them more cap flexibility.
How Does the NFL Determine the Salary Cap?
All NFL teams must build their roster under the same salary cap restrictions. Unlike Major League Baseball, where teams can spend as much as they want, the NFL cap keeps teams in larger markets from outspending those that generate less revenue.
Several factors and calculations determine the league’s salary cap for the upcoming season. The previous year’s revenue plays a huge role in the team’s cap number. TV deals, ticket sales, merchandise, and other income streams are all added up and the player’s cut of the profits is subtracted. 
This number minus expenses for player benefits and other costs gives the NFL a lump sum that can then be divided evenly between the 32 teams. For 2023, the NFL has set the salary cap at $224.8 million.
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Between inflation and the league’s continued growth, the salary cap is almost always increasing. Teams incorporate the projected future salary cap when negotiating contracts, which made the 2020 season a tenuous one for both teams and the league as they dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Without league intervention, the salary cap would have dropped as much as 40%, which would have made it impossible for NFL teams to stay under the cap. Instead, the NFL “financed” the salary cap to soften the blow to teams and allow them to pay draft picks, re-sign players, and negotiate free-agent deals. 
With stadiums once again filled to capacity, the NFL has returned to a gradually rising salary cap that increases by $10-12 million every year. 
Ways the Cowboys Can Increase Cap Space
The Cowboys entered the 2023 off-season with one of the worst cap situations in the NFL. As of March 8th, the Cowboys were over the salary cap by more than $16 million, only the Bills, Chargers, Saints, and Buccaneers were further over the cap than Dallas. By comparison, the Bears had the most cap space in the league with more than $94 million.
This isn’t necessarily an indictment of how the Cowboys had managed their roster. Along with the Bears, the other top five teams in cap space were the Falcons, Texans, Raiders, and Giants. 
While the Giants had a surprisingly good season, I doubt many Dallas fans would change places with any of those fan bases. Teams are usually close to, or over the cap for a reason, their rosters are filled with top-end players that demand higher salaries, limiting their cap space.
Seven players on the Cowboys roster are slated to make more than $10 million in 2023/2024.
I’m willing to bet that Dallas is happy to pay Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Zack Martin. They’re not bargains, but all three are at a minimum, above-average players at their respective positions.
Receiver Michael Gallup is working his way back from an injury in 2021, and while his 2022 numbers aren’t eye-popping (39 receptions, 424 yards, 4 touchdowns), he steadily improved as the season went along and should be fine as a secondary option behind Ceedee Lamb.‘ [6, 7]
But at a time when teams are devoting less and less cap space to the position, having two running backs making more than $10 million is far from efficient. 
Pollard is coming off two excellent seasons where he has been graded as one of the best backs in football according to Pro Football Focus. 
The Cowboys responded by placing the franchise tag on Pollard which allows them to retain his services for one more year at a designated number based on the average cost of the top five players at that position. 
For a year, I don’t mind paying Pollard like a top-five running back. No, the big issue is the other running back.
That’s a lot of money for a rapidly aging running back that averaged less than 4 yards per carry in 2022. 
The good news if you’re a Cowboys fan is they don’t have to pay Elliott through 2026. Instead, Dallas can choose to release Elliott at any point and recoup some cap space.
The Cowboys can open up as much at $10.9 million in cap space if they release Elliott after June 1st. Dead cap refers to how much Elliott would still cost against their cap room in 2023 and/or 2024 if they were to release or trade him. These sunk costs may be hard, but it’s a lot better than paying Elliott eight figures through 2026. This is a common feature in NFL contracts that are rarely fully guaranteed, giving teams an out if a player’s performance declines.
Dallas could also approach Elliott and see if he’s interested in restructuring his contract. In this scenario, the two sides would negotiate an entirely new deal that would guarantee Elliott more money than he’d get if he was released, but at a significantly lower number. If Elliott isn’t willing to renegotiate, he’ll likely be cut with the only question being if it will come before or after June 1st. 
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While Dallas is in a difficult spot financially, they’re still in a position to get under the salary cap and field a solid team in 2023-2024. Shrewd drafting in recent years has landed superstar players like receiver Ceedee Lamb and edge defender Micah Parsons who are providing plenty of surplus value on their rookie contracts. 
If they can find a way to move off of Ezekiel Elliott or renegotiate his contract, they should be in reasonable shape.
What would you do if you were in charge of the Cowboys? Who would you look to target in the draft to get back to the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl? Let us know in the comments below.