Any hope the Dallas Cowboys had of re-signing the recently released DeMarcus Ware evaporated when Ware became a member of the Denver Broncos on Wednesday. And with Jason Hatcher coming off a career year and embarking on a free-agency tour across the United States, it's probably safe to predict that he'll also be too rich for Dallas' blood.
Even if Anthony Spencer finds his way back into a Dallas uniform, it's evident now that the Cowboys have to basically start from scratch in an attempt to rebuild their once-vaunted defensive front.
The problem is that the only way to do that is through the draft. Free agency can help, but the Cowboys have to know that grooming their own pass-rushing studs and run-stuffing defensive linemen is the best route to take here. They experienced that firsthand with Ware, Hatcher, Spencer and Jay Ratliff, all of whom were drafted by Jerry Jones and Co.
That takes time, though, and good drafting. Next year, Tony Romo will be 34 and Jason Witten will be 32, so the Cowboys don't possess a lot of the former. And in recent years they haven't done a lot of the latter.
In the meantime, free agents will have to do their best Ware and Hatcher impressions, which isn't easy when you're handcuffed by the salary cap. Even after releasing Ware on Tuesday, Dallas had only $8.5 million in cap space, according to OvertheCap.com.
So it's not surprising to see the Cowboys go bargain hunting 24 hours into the free-agency period. Their only two signings thus far have been journeyman defensive tackle Terrell McClain, according to ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins, and journeyman defensive end Jeremy Mincey, per Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post.
According to Wilson, Mincey's deal is worth only $4.5 million over two years. McClain is signed for three years, but don't expect the average dollar value to be much higher than that.
By essentially just adding bodies with limited potential, the Cowboys are betting on defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to make things work with a patchwork line for the second year in a row. In 2013, the defensive line specialist worked some absolute magic with afterthoughts like George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Jarius Wynn, Drake Nevis, Everette Brown and Caesar Rayford playing significant or semi-significant roles.
Selvie, who wasn't even on the roster at this point last year, was the most pleasant surprise with eight sacks and 51 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The fact that, prior to that, he had a total of three sacks in 36 games with three different teams between 2010 and 2012 indicates Marinelli knows what he's doing.
Wynn and Nevis also exceeded expectations, so why shouldn't we expect the same results from McClain and Mincey?
Nothing's guaranteed, especially with so-called scrubs. And don't forget that those guys at least benefited from having Ware and Hatcher in the lineup most of the year. It could be a different story with those two out of town, but trusting in Marinelli is the best option Dallas has.
Ultimately, it's a numbers game. If you've got a great defensive line coach and you've got 10 or 12 relatively talented defensive linemen, a few of them should be capable of holding down the fort while you turn to the draft.
Can the Cowboys make the playoffs without Ware and Hatcher?
This is, after all, one of the deepest drafts we've had in years. Guys like Aaron Donald, Timmy Jernigan, Louis Nix, RaShede Hageman, Kony Ealy and Dee Ford could be within Dallas' reach, and all of them could be ready to contribute to that defensive front as soon as possible. Plus, you've got talented 2012 third-round pick Tyrone Crawford already on the roster.
We know McClain and Mincey aren't Pro Bowlers. They likely won't ever be. McClain has played just 203 snaps the last two years and struggled so much as a rookie third-round pick in Carolina in 2011 that the Panthers didn't even keep him around for a second season. Mincey has just 20 sacks in eight seasons and only five since 2012.
But this is the only way the Cowboys can avoid digging a deeper cap hole while remaining competitive. They're praying that Marinelli can find a way to get pressure without studs up front, and at the same time they're avoiding cap hell for 2015 and beyond, when bills will inevitably come due for centerpieces like Romo, Witten, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray.