Should the Cowboys Pursue Adrian Peterson

One question that is consistently coming up on my Twitter feed or in my email inbox is “how can the Cowboys afford to get Adrian Peterson”.  Dallas has been linked to the Vikings running back for the last year and Peterson has made it very clear that he no longer wants to play in Minnesota. The Vikings hold his rights for the next three seasons and would likely trade him before releasing him, but can Dallas really fit him in their salary cap?  Let’s explore.

The Peterson Contract

Peterson is set to earn $45 million in non-guaranteed salary over the next three years. That includes a $13 million salary in 2015. Normally I would have said nobody in the NFL would consider that salary and Peterson would need to take a stiff pay cut, but given decisions made by the Seahawks, Eagles, and Bills I can’t consider that to be the case anymore. Since the Vikings have shown a willingness to keep him at his current $13 million salary and Peterson is not moving off his stance for a trade it would seem likely that Peterson knows there is at least that much awaiting him from another team.

Here is what the current top end running backs are earning on their recent contracts:

PlayerAgeYear 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5

While none of these numbers are close to the $45 million currently in Peterson’s contract they probably give us an idea of what would be an acceptable contract for Peterson who will argue that he is the best of the group. My feeling is that given his age (30) all sides will look at this as a maximum three year contract with anything additional really just being there for cap purposes and/or to inflate a contract number.

Given the above chart I would expect Peterson to definitely not compromise at all on a two year total which will need to be at least $21.1 million to surpass McCoy, the way McCoy did Lynch. I would expect a three year total to surpass Lynch’s by a few million. My guess is this year’s salary is something he can be more flexible with but it will need to be at least the $13 million he is already slated to earn. At $33 million over three years he can reach a tidy three year value of $11 million per year so I would likely consider that a decent estimate. Those last two years will just be used for cap purposes.  (As a sidenote for those asking why I would say McCoy’s contract was far worse than Murray’s, just look at the above chart).

The Cowboys Salary Cap Situation

Dallas is currently pressed right up against the salary cap with about $1.7 million in cap space. Once they sign their rookies they will be in the ballpark of $300,000 in space. None of this takes into account the contract potential of Greg Hardy. Hardy currently counts for $3,217,850 against the Cowboys salary cap, but that number can rise as high as $11,311,600 by the end of the year. Factor in roster expansion to 53 players, Practice Squad salaries, and a few injuries and Dallas is effectively $9-10 million over the salary cap.  On a standard contract Peterson would likely have to count for at least $5 million in cap room, so this is a tough situation.

Dallas has three places where they can primarily find savings. One is the release of Brandon Carr after June 1. Designating him a June 1 frees up $8 million in cap space over the summer.  That does not help them for acquiring Peterson over the draft weekend, however, as they would still be around that $1.7 million figure they are at now.

The second option is restructuring the contract of Tony Romo. I’ve discussed that in detail before and there is no need to rewrite it all here, but in a standard restructure the team saves $12.824 million. That is certainly dangerous for an older quarterback with a bad back, but is likely a strong consideration even if they don’t acquire Peterson.

The third option would be negotiating a contract extension with Dez Bryant, currently the teams franchise player and taking up nearly $13 million in cap space. I think it is worth noting that bringing in Peterson on anything more than a one year contract would be a determent to any negotiation with Bryant if the Cowboys main stance is off the field issues concern them with a long term contract with Bryant. In addition the recent contracts for Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb make this even more difficult. I would consider this the least likely of the three options to happen even though it makes more sense than a Romo restructure.

Outside of these three avenues there are no real major cap savings that can be found. To bring in Peterson they will likely need to do two of these three things.

How to Squeeze Peterson in

Assuming they do the first two moves discussed above Dallas will have somewhere in the ballpark of $8-9 million in effective cap space to set aside for Peterson. That would allow Dallas to do a relatively standard contract that might not hurt them badly in the future with a moderate signing bonus and escalating salaries.

But is there a way to do the move without touching more than just one of the above players?  That would depend on Peterson and the Cowboy’s tolerance for pushing money into 2016. The Hardy structure allowed Dallas to bring Hardy to the team now while they wait for the NFL to determine Hardy’s fate. That gives Dallas ample time to decide what to do with Carr, Romo, and/or Bryant. But all Dallas did was delay the inevitable (assuming Hardy can play) until the season.

I guess we can draw some parallels here since Peterson is not guaranteed to be moved off the exempt list by the start of the year and the team could use a similar structure on a restructured deal to almost fit him into their existing $1.7M of cap room (they would likely need to include someone like a Morris Claiborne in a trade to do that), but again it is just delaying the inevitable for the season.

Dallas could attempt to exploit the incentive system to their advantage in crafting a contract to help defer costs to 2015 to lessen the size of a Romo restructure. Because Peterson only rushed for 75 yards in 2014, in theory the Cowboys could give Peterson gigantic payments for rushing for something like 100 yards in a year. The NFL only counts such incentives against the cap if the player reached the performance level the year before so a $10 million bonus for 200 yards on the season would not count against the salary cap until after the season when final adjustments are made. Such incentives would be virtually guaranteed to earn but this allows the team to manipulate the cap for one year. In 2016 the team would take on a large charge for the incentive that was earned but didn’t count in 2015.

I’m not sure that Peterson would be willing to take such a contract. For one this would significantly defer payment until after the season. Secondly the incentives are not really going to be counted as part of his base contract so from an on paper standpoint he will be taking a lower cost contract which is never a good for an ego. He would also run the risk of a preseason injury making the incentive null which is a major risk. Though the team can include rolling incentives to ensure that it will always be available for him to earn once in the future it is still a risky option.  Still this is a way to squeeze him in now without major contract changes, but more likely they will need to rework contracts to get him under the cap.

Should the Cowboys Do It?

While Peterson may be a once in a generation player the fact is he will be 30 years old and only once in the last five years played 16 games. While the Cowboys personnel is superior to the Vikings Id imagine at best you would be looking at a 1,250-1,300 yard year (which is certainly excellent), which is probably not far off from where Murray might be unless his body breaks down from the high use last year. Dallas showed no inclination to make a big commitment to a younger player so I can’t see why they would do it here unless its really just filling a fantasy dream. They would have to be certain that, if healthy, Peterson can produce over 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns to potentially justify the long term cap damage that can arise from  the move.

Dallas has worked hard to get their salary cap back in order and this move would probably wreck most of that work. It would compromise their positions with their future salary cap and likely tie them to Romo for an additional season. I also believe it would have a negative impact on any negotiation with Bryant who is more important long term to this team than Peterson would be.

Peterson to the Cowboys may sound like a dream come true, but the team will be better off staying the course and finding someone else to play the position