IRVING, Texas – From a Cowboys-centric point of view, here is the good and bad just a little less than two months away from the start of free agency.
First the bad.
As we all know by now, the Cowboys once again will have to engage in their yearly fat-trimming to get under the salary cap by the March 11 start to the new NFL year. While many seem to have their own ideas about how the Cowboys get to that NFL maximum, some quite wild I might add, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones does not seem quite as perplexed.
In a recent conversation, though, Jones said, "I don't think there are any Houdini-type things we need to do to make the salary cap work in terms of being efficient and ultimately improve our roster. Obviously the focus still is with our cap situation, the draft and young players.
"But you don't ever rule out trying to improve with one or two guys from the free-agent market who can help us."
Then there is this: Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, two mainstays on the defensive front over the past several years, are free agents, and the one thing the Cowboys have always seemingly accomplished since free agency began in 1994 is retaining their own free agents of choice.
Your chances of doing so considerably decrease with limited available salary cap dollars.
Doubly not good when it comes to Hatcher this year – as if it wasn't going to be tough enough to even attempt to re-sign him, what with his breakout, career-high 11-sack season playing for the first time from the defensive tackle position in a 4-3 defense – is what took place on Thursday. Hatch has been named a replacement to the Pro Bowl team, and any time you are out there in free agency trying to market yourself – in other words, get the best offer possible – just returning from a Pro Bowl appearance in Hawaii is like a slot machine going ding, ding, ding.
Shoot, no matter what you say, the Cowboys certainly would hate to write off the defensive tackle who led the NFL in sacks this past season. Double-digit sacks from inside is rather remarkable, and in fact Hatch recorded the most sacks for a Cowboys defensive tackle since Randy White racked up 12.5 in 1984.
Good for Hatcher, who hit the personal mother lode on Thursday, being named to the Pro Bowl team while his wife was in the process of giving birth to their baby girl.
For the Cowboys, bad, bad, bad.
OK, so having pointed that out, let's move on to what might become a couple of good breaks for Dallas, and let it be known the Cowboys certainly have not washed their hands of either player, but will be forced to sit back and see what the market might bear. Theirs must be a wait-and-see approach, knowing they can't be the ones to set market value for either player.
"With our cap situation, that's pretty much the way we have to go," Jones said, "and that has nothing to do with the respect we have for Jason Hatcher or Anthony Spencer. They've obviously had great careers here in Dallas. We hope they continue to. But at the same time we certainly respect they have to take care of their families and do what's best for them individually, and we fully expect that to happen.
"But hopefully they can do that and still be a Cowboy. We'll just have to see. We'll certainly be watching that. We don't burn any bridges. I think Darren Woodson and Jay Novacek went into free agency without any contracts and they came home. … We certainly want to be in the mix." [embedded_ad]
Let's start with Spencer. This may play out in the Cowboys' favor, since most figure no way the team can afford to re-sign their two-time franchised player. Well, not so fast.
Last time I saw Anthony Spencer following his Oct. 1 microfracture knee surgery he still was on crutches. That was in December. I'm told he's still on crutches and that his recovery from the surgery that tries to promote the regrowth of missing cartilage under the kneecap is not going as well as expected. Chances are, because there was a pretty big divot of cartilage missing, there is no way he'll be fully recovered when free agency begins on March 11. That means some team would have to take a leap of faith to sign an otherwise healthy Spencer to one of those five-year, $40 million deals with like $20 million guaranteed if he's still limping around.
That will kill your market value faster than anything, and why players normally squawk when getting franchised as he was the past two seasons, knowing all they have is a one-year guarantee and any sort of long-term injury can kill your market value the coming offseason.
So who knows, maybe teams will take a hands-off approach to Spencer, and if that happens and if his knee doesn't come around until like May or June, Spencer might be a prime candidate for one of those one-year minimum deals laced with some incentives, but without any guaranteed money.
That might be right up the Cowboys' cap-depleted alley, and what better place to take a chance on yourself than by staying put. Now this all is unfortunate for Spencer, but let's remember he's made roughly $20 million over the past two seasons with the Cowboys while playing but one game this past season to collect half the sum.
Guys have been known to sign one year deals for a chance to re-establish their market value – that is, if that knee ever does come around – rather than sign some longer-term deal for far below what you might think your worth might be. Sort of like betting on yourself.
And as for Hatcher, turning 32 in July? Well, you know how the many know-it-alls keep saying no way the Cowboys should "pay age," meaning don't sign an aging player to one of these lucrative long-term deals that will outlive his productivity even if you have the funds, which the Cowboys really don't.
Well, if you guys are thinking that, maybe decision-makers for teams around the league are thinking the same thing, and if they are, maybe that drives down his market value. Maybe Hatcher isn't offered what he richly deserves. Just maybe then that means the going rate for a 32-year-old Pro Bowl defensive tackle becomes something more palatable for the Cowboys' paltry budget. Who knows?
We'll see. Only time will tell for both guys.
But without Hatcher and/or a healthy and affordable Spencer, a Cowboys defensive front already in bad need of refurbishing will need an even more intensive re-do. Any success doing so then rests at the mercy of the draft.
Thus the good, the bad and just maybe the agonizing as you are watching conference championship games Sunday without the Cowboys again.