The Dallas Cowboys once faced a dream scenario to secure three offensive stars at pricey-but-not-crippling rates:
Extend quarterback Dak Prescott somewhere in the mid-to-high $20 million range per year
Re-sign Amari Cooper at a high price but not atop the receiver market, perhaps in the range of $16 million to $17 million per year
Wait until 2020 to negotiate an extension with Ezekiel Elliott, with his fifth-year option buying the Cowboys time
Plans can change quickly in the NFL, which saw Elliott retreat to Cabo to stir his own drinks, a quarterback market balloon well over $30 million in a matter of months and New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas salute Cooper with one helluva market reset. With Week 1 closing in, all three players are swinging for the upper deck.
Negotiating with a bevy of star players is the best and worst problem to have. The Cowboys acquired elite talent and will probably make it all work. But that $23 million in 2019 cap space will be yoga-stretched, which raises an obvious question: How many stars can teams really handle in today's NFL?
Holdouts are trendy again. Players are tiring of affordable contracts and actually have a sliver of leverage now. Six players held out to start training camps, and one league source said teams anticipated at least nine. A few players surprisingly showed up; Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is believed to be one of them.
The looming expiration of the collective bargaining agreement has players trying to beat the clock on a potential lockout. At least one NFC exec is leery of the trend. "Guys you are counting on to lead your team who have time left on their deals just decide to disappear," the exec said. "It's a different time."
The numbers help tell the story about a star-capped league. Fourteen NFL teams have less than $10 million in salary-cap space as of this week, and those teams average about 6.5 players with a cap hit of $8 million or more in 2019.
The cap-savvy Minnesota Vikings lead that group, with nine players above that threshold, and the New York Giants and New England Patriots have four apiece. The Patriots are masters at surrounding Tom Brady with affordable contracts. And the Giants ... well, they just traded away several bloated ones.
Pittsburgh Steelers guard Ramon Foster knows star power is "a gift and a curse." He would understand. He's fresh off the contract upheaval of Le'Veon Bell's franchise-tag exile that emboldened this year's holdouts and Antonio Brown's forcing his way out of town.
"I think it's more or less how many humble stars you can have," Foster said. "Having a team full of all-stars is one thing, but controlling those attitudes and how they want to be seen and what their role is going to be is another aspect of that. We've done a good job of it, but sometimes the situation can get bigger than you think or the money can get bigger than what you're willing to give them. ... You can't make everybody happy. If you try to please everybody, you go to crap."
At least eight teams will be trying to evade that fate next year. Below is a breakdown of teams that could feel the star-power crunch with difficult decisions in 2020. To be sure, not all of these teams have bleak salary-cap outlooks, but their front-office mettle will be tested as they try to build a healthy roster for years against the backdrop of star players due new money.
Projected 2020 cap space: $7,736,094 (No. 25 in NFL)
Extension candidates: Foster joked that JuJu Smith-Schuster makes more money from social media than from his base salary of $1.144 million. Those rookie deals are glorious for teams' operating costs, but the Smith-Schuster bargain won't look so appealing a year from now. The Pro Bowler will be in a similar position to Thomas, a former second-round pick with a 100-catch pedigree and dreams of $20 million per year.
Pittsburgh's top two playmakers, Smith-Schuster and James Conner, enter Year 3 of the four-year rookie deals they've already outplayed. As a team that often operates with less than $10 million in cap space, the Steelers will get creative to address the futures of young talents and established veterans. At least that $21.12 million in dead money from the Brown trade will come off the books in 2020.
Veterans to watch: Defensive end Cameron Heyward and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva are still high-level players at age 30 and want one more poke at the market. Particularly Villanueva, who's vastly underpaid at four years and $24 million. He took a low deal as an exclusive rights free agent two years ago and is now a two-time Pro Bowler. Heyward still has one of the best D-line motors in football and will put that motor into "new money" gear in 2019.
Short-term fixes: The Steelers' Way is to restructure contracts of pricey vets they know will stay productive as a way to manage the cap. With Ben Roethlisberger's $33.5 million cap hit in 2020, they will need more of that.
The Steelers are working on a two-year extension for Joe Haden, whose final year on his current contract carries an $11.916 million cap hit. Top-shelf corners command at least $10 million per year. The team also would like to re-sign defensive tackle Javon Hargrave.