DeMarcus Ware has two of the 10 highest single-season sack totals in NFL history, ranks fourth on the active career sack list and is the Dallas Cowboys' all-time sack leader. Sacks are important, guys, and that's why Ware has probably been the MVP of the most recent decade of Cowboys football.
Naturally, it isn't easy to break up with a player who has made such a tremendous impact on your organization. But one of the best assets you can have in this business is the ability to cut bait before players begin to deteriorate.
It's a numbers game—one that the Cowboys have been losing for several years—and Ware might no longer be worth what Dallas is paying him.
Ware, who will be 32 years old before he plays another NFL game, is due to count $16.003 million against the salary cap in 2014, and the Cowboys are projected to be about $25 million over said cap, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer.
For the first time in his career, he missed time due to injury in 2013, sitting three games due to a strained right quadriceps. But he's also been hampered by back, neck, elbow, shoulder and hamstring problems the last two years.
Since hitting 30, his body has begun to break down. Very rarely is that trend reversible. The odds are in favor of Ware missing more time in 2014 and beyond, but even if he doesn't sit out multiple games there's an even better chance he'll again struggle due to wear and tear. He may never be 100 percent again, and he'll never be the player he once was.
We saw that this season, even when Ware was on the field. The 2005 first-round pick out of Troy had a career-low six sacks, dropping below the double-digit plateau for the first time since his rookie season. He had only two sacks after Week 3.
Ware also hit a new low with 40 tackles, and his pressure total and pass-rushing productivity grade at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) were lower than they've been since the website started tracking such numbers full time in 2009.
Pro Football Focus
It is one thing to commit $16 million to a guy on the cap when he is getting you anywhere from 12 to 18 sacks a season. It’s another thing to do it when he is struggling. If the Cowboys released Ware, their all-time leader in sacks, they would save $7.43 million against the cap. Jerry Jones has a hard time with these types of decisions.
Jones hung on to Jay Ratliff for too long, and that hurt this defensive front dearly in 2013. The Cowboys also refused to move on from Anthony Spencer, costing them $19.4 million in guaranteed money the last two years. This franchise can't afford to get clingy or nostalgic right now. Doing so will further bury it for years to come.
The team would be paying Ware $8.6 million to walk, which means a pay cut of anything in the $5 million range for 2014 alone would probably make sense. Anything more than that and it's probably not worth it.
The Cowboys have restructured his contract on three occasions already. Doing so again to the maximum degree would save them even more money than cutting him would, but that would only deepen their long-term debt.
It's about time this team started thinking about the future, and that means coming to grips with the idea that Ware won't likely be part of it. The best strategy is to take him off the books well before 2015, which is the final year of his current deal.
Maybe Ware does take a pay cut and sticks around next season. He has indicated he'd be willing to do exactly that, so it's at least in the realm of possibilities. But even if that does indeed happen, the Cowboys have to start thinking right now about who will replace him.
Because there isn't a position on the defensive side of the ball that is more valuable than Ware's. To win in this league in 2014, you need strong quarterback play, but you almost always also need players who can chase down and hit the opposing quarterback. With Spencer likely gone and Ware in decline, Dallas has to find its next franchise pass-rusher immediately.
George Selvie, Kyle Wilber and Tyrone Crawford are on the roster already.
Selvie came out of nowhere to put together a seven-sack season on the side opposite Ware in 2013. He's 26 and deserves a role on this team going forward, but it's tough to know how high his ceiling is. Wilber is a sophomore 24-year-old former fourth-round pick who had two sacks in six starts. He's a role player, but he's probably not a star. And Crawford might have more upside than anyone on that defensive line, but the 2012 third-round pick spent the entire 2013 campaign on injured reserve and has zero career sacks to his name.
Good 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends don't just become available on the trade market, and the Cowboys don't have the capital to invest in a top-tier free agent in that area. Thus, they're left hoping Selvie, Wilber and/or Crawford can pan out while turning back to the draft.
The 'Boys haven't used a first- or second-round pick on a pass-rusher since taking Spencer 26th overall in 2007. Prior to that, they hadn't done so since taking Ware with the 11th pick in 2005. Crawford and Wilber are the only borderline pure pass-rushers they've drafted in the last six years.
Pro Football Reference
It's too early for the Cowboys to start thinking quarterback. They also have a great running back, a superb young left tackle, a top-flight group of receivers, a young and talented linebacking corps and an expensive and talented secondary. It's time to start reinvesting in the pass rush, starting with that first pick on May 8. Whoever they choose there should be Ware's successor.