Defensive end DeMarcus Ware will go down as perhaps the greatest pass-rusher in team history, but the Dallas Cowboys had no choice but to cut him. The team announced the news Tuesday, via Rowan Kavner of DallasCowboys.com. With a salary cap hit of over $16 million, according to Spotrac, the Cowboys' only course of action was to hope that Ware would be open to taking a pay cut.
Ware apparently didn't think he should take a reduction in pay, according to Clarence Hill of the Star-Telegram. It seems like perhaps the two sides could have worked out a deal that worked for both parties, with Ware taking less money to lessen his 2014 salary cap blow but still receiving more than he might on the open market. Of course, that all comes down to Ware's market value, which he apparently believes will be high.
So how much exactly is Ware worth? Did he make a good decision in leaving Dallas? Should the Cowboys have offered Ware a smaller pay reduction so he'd stay in Big D, or did they have no choice? Let's answer those questions.
A Look at the Value of Defensive Ends
There are different ways that NFL teams value certain positions. Sometimes, they're rather astute at identifying true worth and compensating accordingly, such as with quarterbacks. By and large, NFL quarterbacks get paid in a very linear manner that matches their skill level.
Not so for defensive ends. We know that sacks are really volatile from year to year, yet teams "reward" pass-rushers for past sacks. Actually, there's a strong relationship between the average worth of a defensive end's contract and the number of sacks he posted in the year prior to signing.
Below, I charted the average worth (in millions) of the contracts for the top 15 highest-paid defensive ends, along with the number of sacks they recorded just prior to signing their deals:
You can see that, although there are a few exceptions, most defensive ends fall near the trend line, which is just over $1 million in annual salary per sack.
Should NFL teams place so much emphasis on sacks? No, of course not. They're pretty fluky, and teams should be analyzing a stat that's better predictive of future sacks, such as quarterback pressures. But they do care a lot about past sacks, so Ware's six 2013 sacks are going to be at least partially reflected in whatever deal he obtains.
What about Ware?
Now that Ware has been released, he isn't listed on that graph. But what if we look at his old Dallas deal from 2014 forward as if it were a new one? Well, Ware was due $15.39 million per year over the next four years, according to Spotrac. That's a whole lot of money.
Basically, players listed above the trend line are more likely to offer value. All other things equal, you want to see a dot that's high (meaning the player had a lot of sacks) and far to the left (meaning he has a smaller contract).
Well, Ware is an extreme outlier, charted all the way by himself in the bottom right. He was due a massive amount of money, but he didn't perform all that well in 2013. You can blame injuries all you want, but that's part of the aging process; older players get injured more often and are less likely to rebound when they do get hurt. So there's really no "what if Ware were healthy?" because he was never likely to remain healthy from the start.
How much is Ware worth now?
To get a better sense of why Dallas made the right decision, let's try to determine Ware's true worth at this stage in his career. One thing he has going for him is that he registered 34 pressures in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Since sacks are volatile, pressures can be used to better judge a pass-rusher's effectiveness.
Historically, defensive ends have racked up one sack for every four pressures. When it's fewer, their future sacks tend to increase, and when it's more, they often decrease. With 34 pressures, Ware's most likely outcome in 2013 wasn't six sacks, but rather 8.5.
Many teams still reward players for past play, but they should really be trying to predict future play. Heading into the 2014 season at age 32, we can't expect all that much out of Ware in the coming years. Below, I charted historic defensive end production by age:
That's represented as the percentage of a pass-rusher's previous career peak (in terms of approximate value), so it adjusts for each player's respective ability. We wouldn't expect Ware at 32 years old to perform like the typical 32-year-old defensive end, but we can assume he'll fall somewhere around 85 to 90 percent of his previous career peak.
A better way to look at it might be that he's likely to play as well in 2014 as he did last season.
That's a sign that Ware could perhaps have a decent 2014 year, particularly since he underachieved in 2013 in terms of sacks—i.e. he's actually likely to improve his sack total in 2014. He's not going to be "$16 million good," but he should have a quality year nonetheless.
The problem comes after this year. Historically, defensive ends have fallen off a cliff at age 33, recording just under 70 percent of their previous career-high in production. If we're to believe that Ware's 34 pressures in 2013 were representative of his current level of play, he'd be projected around that number again this year, but he'd sink to only 26 pressures in 2015.
With those numbers, we can effectively project Ware's future sacks:
Again, he should be able to post a decent sack total this year, but he's very unlikely to continue doing so for many years.
Extending the idea that defensive ends are worth $1 million in annual salary per sack to encompass projected future sacks, Ware should be valued at around $8.5 million in 2014 alone. If he were to receive a three-year deal that has guaranteed money after 2014, however, that annual average should drop; based on his projected sack total, it should be around $7.2 million.
No Choice for Dallas
So how much is Ware worth? It depends on the length of his next contract, but he's certainly not worth what he was owed in Dallas, even for 2014 alone.
If we look at Ware's projected sacks over the next four years versus what he would have received in Dallas, the Cowboys would have had to pay him right around $2.3 million per sack. When the going rate is less than half that, you can see why the Cowboys did indeed have no choice but to let Ware walk.