Who's next to step to the Cowboys' pay window?

Published Aug. 23, 2013 10:52 a.m. ET

IRVING, Texas - Cowboys coach Jason Garrett says newly-extended linebacker Sean Lee "represents, embodies and personifies everything we think is good in football.'' But there is another aspect of NFL football that is represented, embodied and personified in Lee's six-year contract with a base value of $42 million: The proper management of the salary cap also …

As Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and Bruce Carter are just a year away from discovering.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and son Stephen have a long-standing policy of wishing to sign to extensions budding superstars – and to do it one year before the expiration of their existing deals. Sources tell FOXSportsSouthwest.com than just as a contract this summer for Lee was a foregone conclusion, next summer's plan for re-upping promising youngsters Bryant, Smith and Carter is in place – and that they are prioritized in that order.

Dallas believes Bryant, 24, is on the verge of being a perennial Pro Bowler at wide receiver. He's making $2.4 million per year under his present contract. Smith, 22, is considered a foundation piece of the club and he and the club are so committed to their shared future that the left tackle (presently making $3.1 mil per year) is already shopping for a new home in Frisco, future site of the Cowboys' headquarters. Carter, 25, is a special bargain now as because the outside linebacker was a second-round pick (unlike first-rounders Bryant and Smith), he's playing on a rookie deal that pays him just $1.2 mil per season.

The Cowboys hope negotiations with those three go as smoothly as the Lee talks, which moved quickly with Lee's concession to his injury history. His deal can vault to $51 mil overall depending on his health and participation, but still comes with just a $10-million signing bonus. As Lee himself admits, "Obviously I've had injuries and I've said I need to find a way to stay on this field. If I'm on the field the whole year, I'll be able to get paid. But if I do have injuries, it protects the Cowboys and I think that's fantastic, especially with the injuries I've dealt with in the past. Hopefully I'll find a way to be on the field every single year. That's my goal. So I think it's extremely fair."

Making the right cap-related decisions are almost as important in the NFL as making the right personnel decisions. Money not spent this year carries into the ensuing season. That matters now because Lee's cap number jumped from under $1 million to $2.93 million, meaning Dallas still has almost $7 mil under the cap. (And can gain another $1.1 million with the likely release of offensive lineman Ryan Cook.)

The Cowboys' policy of signing players a year before they become free agents has backfired at times. A prime example: they bet on the come on running back Marion Barber in 2008, giving him a seven-year, $45-million deal then watching him run out of gas in Dallas over the course of the next two seasons.

But Barber may serve as a case study for a conservative approach to another potentially stand-out Cowboys player in running back DeMarco Murray. A source tells FoxSportsSouthwest that as much as the club loves Murray's talent, his injury history and his position – which may mean a shorter shelf life for him – keeps him from joining the aforementioned big three as a summer-of-2014 priority.
The Cowboys do want to retain Murray, but they also have hopes that rookie Joseph Randle might be able to supplant him (and at great savings). They also may re-up kicker Dan Bailey, 25, a rock-solid performer playing on the final year of a contract worth $465,000 annually.

In the case of Bailey, the going rate seems clear; top-notch kickers are making about $2.4 million a year. In the cases of Bryant, Smith and Carter, there are other complications. Bryant could conceivably reach a performance level matching the likes of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, the NFL's highest-paid receivers at $16 mil annually. Smith hasn't yet blossomed into greatness and must make the leap from just being "promising.'' Carter has an injury history that mirrors Lee's, and may have to compromise financially because of it.

But the Cowboys have their plan, and they have their dominoes, and they have them in order for next summer: Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and then Bruce Carter, along with the hope that they and Lee play as well as they are paid.