Jason Hatcher Worthy of Cowboys Franchise Tag, but Dallas Simply Can't Afford It

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Jason Hatcher Worthy of Cowboys Franchise Tag, but Dallas Simply Can't Afford It
Gregory Bull/Associated Press

In a perfect world, the Dallas Cowboys would keep disruptive defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, even if that meant using the franchise tag. 

But in reality, Jerry Jones' team is in salary-cap hell.

Per Brandon George of the Dallas Morning News, the Cowboys are "at least a league-high $25 million over the salary cap" with the new league year and the annually chaotic free-agency period set to begin on March 11. 

Let's examine how Dallas should handle the Jason Hatcher situation and if the franchise-tag route is even an option. 

Hatcher's On-Field Value

Hatcher's an intriguing and rather unusual case. He was a third-round pick in the 2006 draft out of Grambling State and spent his first few seasons as a solid contributor for the Cowboys but didn't emerge as a star.

The 3-4 defensive end spot Hatcher manned isn't a flashy position and doesn't necessarily have to fill up the stat sheet to be valuable. That's important to remember. 

Here's how Hatcher was graded from 2008 to 2011 as a 3-4 defensive end by Pro Football Focus (subscription required):

Jason Hatcher's PFF Grades From 2008 - 2011 As 3-4 DE (Rank)
Overall Grade Pass-Rushing Grade Run-Stopping Grade
2008 +1.6 (14) +0.2 (12) +1.0 (16)
2009 +3.1 (15) +4.7 (10) -3.0 (17)
2010 +6.4 (15) +7.4 (10) -2.5 (29)
2011 +9.3 (10) +7.8 (8) +4.5 (11)

Pro Football Focus

The steady improvement Hatcher displayed was encouraging, and he had clearly become one of the better players at his position. 

In 2013, when the Cowboys switched to a traditional 4-3 base alignment under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Hatcher moved inside to defensive tackle and absolutely exploded. 

Check his PFF grades:

Jason Hatcher's Breakout 2013 Season (Rank)
Overall Grade Pass-Rushing Grade Run-Stopping Grade
2013 +27.3 (8) +26.9 (4) -1.2 (50)

Pro Football Focus

Hatcher was primarily asked to get upfield and disrupt the quarterback—and he did. Frequently. The former 3-4 defensive end tallied 11 sacks and finished sixth in PFF's Pass-Rushing Productivity—a stat that measures pass-rushing efficiency— among defensive tackles this past season. 

He's undeniably one of the game's premier penetrating defensive linemen and proved to be capable of consistently creating interior pressure, which has become vital in today's pass-heavy NFL

The lone issue with Hatcher's future viability is his age. He'll be 32 on July 13 and is entering his ninth season as a professional. 

Actually, his elder-statesmen status would lend credence to the idea that a one-year franchise tag would be more logical than a long-term contract.  

Monetary Value

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

According to former NFL agent and CBS Sports contributor Joel Corry, the 2014 franchise-tag value for defensive tackles will be anywhere from $9.168 million to $9.291 million, depending on where the league sets the salary cap this year. 

That range will represent 7.26 percent of a team's cap. 

Corry explains in his article that the Cowboys have "$152.2 million in 2014 cap obligations," which severely hinders their ability to add another big cap hit to their books.  

Essentially, Dallas' horrid cap situation will almost assuredly keep them from utilizing the franchise tag.

Justification for Cowboys to Tag Him

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If the Cowboys' cap-management team can somehow get well below the salary cap, a one-year franchise tag worth around $9.2 million would make sense if the team believes Hatcher won't be viable in two or three seasons. 

The tag would (basically) guarantee that Hatcher would be on the team in 2014 when he should still be an imposing force at a critical position in Dallas' 4-3 defense. 

The Cowboys are rather thin along their defensive front. Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware were the only two defensive linemen to receive a positive grade from PFF for their play during the 2013 campaign. 

Justification for Cowboys Not to Tag Him

First and foremost, the salary-cap issue serves as the greatest justification for Dallas to not use the tag on Hatcher

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

However, the Cowboys might have a better chance to re-sign Hatcher to a cost-effective multi-year contract and fit him under the salary cap than if they assigned him the expensive one-year franchise tag. 

Inking him to, say, an incentive-laden three-year deal with limited guaranteed money would potentially allow Dallas to space out Hatcher's cap hits and make room for him in 2014.

While the Cowboys would be taking a risk by investing in Hatcher for more than one season, they could build in an escape route of sorts by front-loading the contract and not splurging on guaranteed dollars. 

What Cowboys Should Do

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the need for defensive line talent, the Cowboys should let Hatcher walk in free agency. He very well may have a fine 2014 and could be a valuable contributor into his mid 30s, but he's likely out of the team's price range at this point. 

According to Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com, Hatcher said the following about his impending free agency: 

I'm going to get what I deserve and get what I'm worth. Age don't matter. Whatever. If you ain't talking what I want, I don't want to talk to ‘em.

MacMahon went on to note that Hatcher made it "crystal clear that the Cowboys will not get any hometown discounts."

The Cowboys can count on one of the better defensive line prospects in the 2014 draft class to be available when they go on the clock at No. 16 in May. 

Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, an amazingly disruptive defensive tackle should be high on the Cowboys' board. 

Last year's No. 16 pick—Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel—was signed to a four-year, fully-guaranteed $8.885 million contract. 

His cap hit as a rookie was only $1.615 million and reaches its highest value in 2016 when it's $2.827 million. 

That type of contract would be exceptionally more cap-friendly for the Cowboys, and they'd get almost a decade younger at that position. 

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