IRVING, Texas – Let's say the suppositions are true, and the Cowboys are going to have a little bit of wiggle room under this year's salary cap.
The word coming from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Ind., is that the league is going to bump the salary cap to roughly $130 million – about a five percent bump from last year.
A lot has to happen between now and the start of free agency, as the Cowboys have several big contracts they need to restructure. The oft-repeated line from team executives is that the team will be under the cap when it needs to be. In addition to that, it looks like they have a few more dollars to spare than initially thought.
That makes me wonder about Jason Hatcher – easily the biggest name among Dallas free agents after his 11-sack season in 2013. Hatcher led all defensive tackles last season with an absolutely monstrous sack total, but he isn't all that high in most free agent rankings – likely because he'll be 32 when training camp starts this summer.
The Cowboys can't afford to slap Hatcher with the franchise tag, which would probably set them back about $9 million. But we also know they have no intention of doing that.
The Cowboys also can't afford to give him a five-year, $34 million contract, which is the deal Desmond Bryant, the top defensive tackle in last year's free agency, got.
Hatcher just finished a three-year, $6 million contract, so the Cowboys would undoubtedly have to up his salary from the $2 million per year they were paying him. If the open market isn't as lucrative as Hatcher expects, they could potentially bring him back for an affordable sum. [embedded_ad]
If that's possible, it certainly seems like the preferable option to looking elsewhere in free agency – considering the limitations involved. It's doubtful the Cowboys could afford a young, productive player, like New York's Linval Joseph or Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett.
All-Pro defensive Jared Allen isn't exactly young, but he's got the pedigree to command a bigger contract than the Cowboys will want to pay.
That all points me back to Hatcher. If the money is manageable, he's got to be the best bet going forward. He has spent the entirety of his career with this organization, and a good chunk of that has been under Jason Garrett. He also has a year of familiarity with Rod Marinelli and his system – and he excelled in it. Marinelli would love to have that production and leadership back on his defensive line.
Hatcher also doesn't have any lingering issues. The veteran fought off stinger problems last season, and he even missed the New Orleans game. But that pales in comparison to the ACL injury that set back Henry Melton – another named getting bandied about in these types of conversations.
Guys like Melton, B.J. Raji and Joseph are also four to seven years younger than Hatcher, which makes them all more likely to command a longer contract. Ideally, Hatcher's age could prevent him from securing a deal that goes beyond two – maybe three years.
Free agency almost always tends to favor the players, which means someone will likely be willing to pay Hatcher more than the Cowboys can afford to offer. All things being equal, though, the veteran defensive tackle is a proven commodity.
It's a big 'if,' but if he can be kept in an affordable fashion, it looks like the best option out there.