IRVING, Texas – It already feels like ancient history, but it was less than two years ago that Jason Hatcher became a valued free agent after a career season in Dallas.
Hatcher signed a four-year, $27 million deal with Washington after posting 11 sacks with the Cowboys in 2013. It's one of several recent examples of a division rival offering a lucrative contract to a homegrown Dallas talent.
The veteran defensive tackle never found his big payday with his original team, but Hatcher said he felt no ill will – not even after the Cowboys signed fellow defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford to a four-year, $45 million deal in September.
"It couldn't have went to a better guy," Hatcher said. "I mean, we all want to get paid in this league. And it couldn't have happened to a better guy. He earned it and he's doing a good job. I got paid over here. It's all about playing football and once you get your deal, you get your deal."
Despite playing for divisional rivals, Crawford has maintained a friendship with Hatcher, as he said he and his fiancée remain in close contact with Hatcher and his family. They also work out together in the offseason. The two are close enough that Crawford said he texted Hatcher in September of 2014 when he got his first start at three-technique defensive tackle.
"I texted him the first day – it was like Game 3 or Game 4 last year," he said. "I was like 'Hey Hatch, I'm playing the under-tackle. Any advice?'"
That advice turned out to be useful, but – to Crawford's surprise – it was quite brief.
"I'm expecting a longer text, and he's like 'Get off' – that's it," he said. "I was like 'That's it?' and he was like 'Yup. Get off.'"
The Cowboys took several steps toward improving their pass rush in 2015 – namely, they signed Crawford long-term, they added Greg Hardy in free agency and they picked Randy Gregory 60th overall in the NFL draft.
It hasn't gone according to plan, as they're ranked 25th in the league with just 20 sacks this year. They need to average two sacks per game to improve on last year's dismal total of 28. Crawford has been among the team leaders in that category, but his total sits at just four after signing the extension.
To hear it from his former teammate, though, the fourth-year pass rusher is still developing his sky-high potential.
"He hasn't really scratched the surface of what type of player he can be," Hatcher said. "Once he can get his confidence on the field, I see times that he's just not really sure, not really sure, confident in himself. But once he can get that figured out. It takes time with a young guy like him."
Crawford's coach was equally effusive with his praise on Thursday. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Crawford continues to contribute in a variety of aspects, not to mention a variety of positions – both under-tackle and nose tackle.
"I think playing the right technique and doing things the right way both in the run game and as a pass rusher, I think he's gotten better in that area," Garrett said. "I think he is making more splash plays. The sack he makes the other day in the game, he blocks a field goal in the game. I think he's a guy who's just continuing to gain more and more confidence in what he does."
Several of the small positives from the Thanksgiving loss to Carolina came from Crawford's spot. He notched his fourth sack of the season against Cam Newton, and he managed to block that field goal. He finished the night with five tackles along with the sack and the block.
Asked if it was his best outing of 2015, Crawford was evasive.
"I think it depends on how you look at it," he said. "Some people look at it as making plays, like that's the best game. But my grade? It wasn't the best grade. I do my job weekly, and I haven't done it up to my standard yet."
Some might say that goes back to confidence. And as that confidence continues to grow, Hatcher had no doubt Crawford's performance will, as well.
"Once he gets it figured out, he's going to be a hell of a player," he said.