Tuesday’s news that the Cowboys released defensive end DeMarcus Ware started speculation among TV experts that the nine-year veteran is sure to be the most sought-after free agent D lineman on the market. Good for him – here’s hoping some GM with tons of cap space delegates a big fat portion of it to signing the former franchise icon.
And good for Cowboys GM Jerry Jones, for not being the one to do it this time. Whoever signs Ware is almost certain to have future dead money issues with the deal. Once an NFL big man starts breaking down physically, the process doesn’t reverse itself. Certainly not if he’s over the age of 30, and Ware will be 32 on opening day this year.
The physical degeneration has been gradual over the past year and a half – 24 games in which Ware tallied just 8.5 sacks. Ware has battled through neck, shoulder, elbow, back and quad issues, leading to surgeries this offseason and last. Because Ware is a true NFL warrior, he sucked it up and played hurt. Because he’s on the wrong side of 30, he wasn’t able to play very well. Nine years in NFL trenches will break a body down. Ware’s constant injury issues aren’t likely to get better with age.
Cutting Ware is so obviously the right move for the franchise that it seems to have caught a few people off guard. Folks don’t expect GM Jerry to make professionally shrewd decisions in evaluating his own talent. The Cowboys braintrust of Jerry, son Stephen Jones, and head coach Jason Garrett are developing a sense of ruthless professionalism in their roster evaluation.
Now that GM Jerry has freed up cap space, don’t expect the team to overpay for defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who is also over 30 and coming off an anomalous career year. Or defensive end Anthony Spencer, also over 30 and coming off major knee surgery. Instead of gambling cap space on one more season in the sun for worn and aging linemen, the Dallas brass is more likely to use that money on long-term deals for tackle Tyron Smith or wide receiver Dez Bryant. Money well-spent on important players in the prime of their careers.
But some NFL GM will overpay these Dallas linemen, because this is free agency, and some GM always overpays for talent during free agency. Just ask cornerback Brandon Carr. That’s good for these three soon-to-be former linemates because they were fine Cowboys and the team’s fan base should wish them well; it’s good for the Cowboys because all three are dead cap money waiting to happen.
Truth is, the Cowboys held on to Ware and Spencer one year too long, and it hurt them. It hurt their ability to compete, designating elite-level cap resources to one underperformer and one IR casualty. If they learned anything, maybe it’s that it’s better to let that talent go a year or so early than to keep it a year too long.
Maybe Hatcher has another solid season in 2014. So what? Someone will give him four years and $10-$15 million guaranteed. If Hatcher’s play doesn’t decline, if his body doesn’t degrade the same as Ware’s and Spencer’s, he’ll be an exception to the rule. Smart GMs don’t gamble organizational resources on low-percentage exceptions. Smart GMs play the odds and win more than they lose.
The odds say Hatcher played the best football he’ll ever play in 2013, and now begins his decline. But some GM is going to pay Hatcher as if he will sustain 2013′s Pro Bowl-level of play for the next four years. Ware almost certainly is heading for a nice payday, and perhaps Spencer, too, even though their inevitable age-fueled declines have already begun. Rejoice, Cowboys fans – this time, it won’t be Jerry writing that check.