The Dallas Cowboys are in salary cap Hell and many teams, including the Eagles, could soon reap the benefits in a big way.
Jerry Jones admits DeMarcus Ware could be a cap casualty http://t.co/HP0axR2u3G
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) February 25, 2014
As it currently stands, the Cowboys sit just south of $20 million of the salary cap for the 2014 season. Even with the penalty that has handicapped both Dallas and Washington over the past two seasons expiring, mismanagement and misappropriation of funds have forced the Cowboys into a very precarious corner. With several decisions to be made up and down the roster, owner and de facto General Manager Jerry Jones had some strong sentiments when it came to the future of his prized pass rusher.
“We made a change in what he’s doing. We put his hand down [play defensive end], rather than stand him up [play outside linebacker]. That was a change, and at the same time, he’s had a tough time getting on the practice field because of various injuries, all of that we have to weigh with how much of that has impacted … where he is with his career and his age…Those are the ingredients in the stew and we have to stir it up and see where we’re going. It will be a very difficult call for us because of how much salary cap he uses.”
The change Jones is referring to is the team’s switch in defensive philosophy from a 3-4 defense to a base 4-3. DeMarcus Ware, for the better part of his career, was arguably the gold standard when it came to pass-rushing outside linebackers. He led the NFL in sacks twice and, save for his rookie year and 2013, has recorded double-digit sacks every year he has been a pro.
When Dallas shipped away Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator, they decided to scrap the 3-4 and adjust more towards new coordinator Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 ‘Tampa Two’ scheme. Having built their defense around Ware for the better part of a decade, the personnel adjustments would undoubtedly make some of the players less valuable than they once were.
As a franchise player, Ware made the necessary physical and technical adjustments to play defensive end. However, various health issues and an injured groin made it tough for Ware to stay on the field. His six sacks were a career low and the once-dominant defensive presence appeared much less certain of his role on the field than the better part of the 2000s.
Given Ware’s struggles in 2013 and the astronomical number he is set to make next season, the Cowboys have an extremely difficult decision on their hands. With a base salary of $12.25 million and a $16 million cap hit, Dallas is going to have a tough time justifying keeping the 31-year old defender in the fold. He is the face of the Cowboys defense and, given the injury-riddled career of the promising middle linebacker Sean Lee, one of the few stalwarts on the ever-shifting Cowboys. Dallas is in an awful situation for both the short and the long-term and I firmly believe that, since Ware has already made it clear he does not want to restructure, they will have to cut ties with the active sacks leader in the NFL.
So is Ware the type of player that the Eagles may pursue in free agency? Certainly worth a debate.
Ware will be 32 at the start of the 2014 season. He has seen his sack total plummet from 19.5 in 2011 to just six last season. Even being the premiere athlete he is, Ware is less than a year removed from a physical overhaul to play a new position. There is no guarantee he still has the capability to trim himself down to the necessary frame to return to his former linebacker position. Ware probably would not garner the price tag that free agent Brian Orakpo probably will, given his age. That said, with the premium that is on pass-rushers in the NFL and Ware having an illustrious track record of doing so, he certainly would not come cheap.
Even with all the red flags, I’d be lying if I said seeing DeMarcus Ware line up for the Eagles with his ears pinned back doesn’t excite me somewhat. The Eagles seem to be gearing toward building through young players in the draft and avoiding some of the big-ticket free agents like Ware might end up being. While I’m all for this approach in theory, every offseason presents different opportunities and potential pitfalls to every team in the NFL. The teams that end up winning Super Bowls and contending every season are the ones who can recognize an opportunity vs. a pitfall and work within the financial framework of the league’s salary structure.
Ware is exactly the type of player that the Eagles need. Unfortunately, this version of Ware is not ideal for where the team is as an organization. If they decided to bring him in, it would not be to hold down the franchise pass-rusher position for the next five seasons. Ultimately, Ware would be a temporary fix brought in to allow younger, less experienced players to refine their game in a low-stress environment. He may have one or two more productive seasons left in him from a position he is more familiar with, but the days of offenses creating a gameplan specifically to avoid Ware are over.
Ware is in a unique position for his career. He most likely did not expect to enter free agency at a relatively young age like 31. However, the Cowboys decided to make a philosophical shift that would render their franchise player less effective. Shifting to a 4-3 was undoubtedly going to lower Ware’s value in Dallas and, while I am certain the former all-pro would have preferred to spend his entire career with the Cowboys, he probably prefers playing as a stand-up linebacker. Whether it was the correct decision or not to fire Rob Ryan (it wasn’t), the Cowboys are not going back and Ware will most likely be playing elsewhere because of it.
The outside linebacker position that Ware played for the majority of his career is arguably the Eagles biggest need this offseason. Along with the safety position, the team is most thin on the outside and is in dire need of help getting to the quarterback. Ware’s knowledge of 3-4 defenses as well as the NFC East would make him more valuable to the Eagles than several other teams who might be in the market for his services. Ultimately, however, it boils down to a timing issue with the Eagles and this is why I do not think Ware would be a good fit for the Eagles.
In the past, I have argued that the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 is the closest position to quarterback in terms of importance to a football team. Pass rushers are, in theory, the only defensive player that can affect every single play. Teams can adjust the flow of their offense away from shutdown corners and strong interior presences can be neutralized with speed and misdirection. Outside pass-rushers can make plays in the run and pass game, they can make opponents avoid an entire half of the field, and they are most often in a position to create turnovers and big plays. Teams that run 3-4 defenses cannot excel without at least one very good pass rusher and usually it requires multiple. Unfortunately for the Eagles, if Trent Cole ends up playing elsewhere next season, they have very little by the way of pressure from the linebacking corps.
While it is projecting and nothing more, Ware seems like a player who would bring more value to a team that already has some established presence at the position. Even at 32 (which he will be next season), Ware is no slouch when it comes to an imposing presence on the field. That said, staying on the field throughout an entire game with the frequency that the Eagles defense was on last season is a totally different animal. Even Trent Cole, a player the same age as Ware, showed signs of withering by the end of the season despite an admirable transition to his new position. If the Eagles were in a position where they had confidence that they could draft an elite prospect, such as Khalil Mack or Anthony Barr, and wanted to bring Ware in while their pass-rusher of the future developed, the move might make more sense.
However, with Connor Barwin playing a different version of the position and the team having essentially no legitimate threat off the edge, hitching their wagon to a 30+ player with lots of plays under his belt seems like a mistimed reach. I expect the Eagles to add several players to their linebacking corps, one or two through free agency. However, with no slam-dunk young player on the market to justify a hefty contract and the top prospects in the draft likely off the board by the 22nd overall pick, the Eagles will have to cast a wider net when it comes to fleshing out that level of the defense. There are several younger, cheaper free agents on the market that could bring close to what Ware does at a fraction of the cost.
As much as it would be fantastic to not have Ware lining up against the Eagles for a few seasons, signing him to a multi-year contract seems to go against the new regime’s philosophy. With that, let’s rejoice when the Cowboys lose one of their best players for nothing and hope he does not end up somewhere else in the NFC East.