We've been spending some time lately breaking down the salary cap crunch the Dallas Cowboys are facing. Deep into the red with only a few weeks to get under the cap, the Cowboys will soon have to make some very important financial decisions that could affect personnel and the level of talent on the roster in 2013.
Ultimately, we know that restructured candidates Tony Romo, Brandon Carr and DeMarcus Ware aren't going anywhere, and that leaves wide receiver Miles Austin as the most important player on the team who might not actually be guaranteed a roster spot for next season.
Austin, who turns 29 this summer, is coming off his third consecutive disappointing season. He failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the second year in a row and he really seemed to fade down the stretch. The emergence of Dez Bryant surely played a role there, but Austin still only caught 57 percent of the balls thrown his way (per Pro Football Focus), which was the lowest percentage on the team.
That's not good for a guy who will count $8.3 million against the cap in 2013, especially when the Cowboys can save about $5 million by releasing him.
With his injury history and his failure to step up, Austin certainly isn't worth his $6.7 million salary. But it's also clear that he's still a valuable weapon in the slot that makes this offense better.
One man who could replace Austin in that particular role is Cole Beasley, who had some intriguing moments as a rookie in 2012, including a seven-catch, 68-yard day against the Redskins in Week 12. In that game, all seven of Beasley's grabs came when he was lined up in the slot. The 23-year-old is on the rise and he'll only cost the Cowboys $480,000 next year.
And then there's Dwayne Harris, who wouldn't fill that role but could replace some of the production Austin would leave behind. The 25-year old had 17 catches and 222 yards in the final seven games of the 2012 season. During the same stretch, Austin made 23 receptions for 274 yards. Harris will make only $550,000 next season.
With Kevin Ogletree a free agent and likely to walk, moving on from Austin would thin out the receiving corps to a dangerous degree. There's no way they'd enter next season with Romo, Harris, Beasley and maybe a draft pick as their top receivers. In other words, they'll probably have to invest in a mid-level free agent to contribute opposite Bryant and/or in the slot.
That's where this gets tricky, because at half the price he's owed, Austin would probably be better than any receiver Dallas would find on the open market. You're not going to be able to pay a quality, ready-to-contribute free-agent receiver less than $2 or $3 million, so I think that you absolutely keep Austin if he's willing to decrease his 2013 base salary from $6.7 million to something in the $3.5 million range.
I don't know if he'll be willing to do that or not, but that has to be the cut-off point. Beyond that range of pay, Austin won't be worth keeping around. I'd rather have Beasley and Harris and a cheap free agent, or an NFL-ready draft pick and an increased chance at being able to re-sign Anthony Spencer or Victor Butler.
What do you think, Cowboys fans?
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