A player’s value to his team is a moving target during the NFL offseason. It sways due to a number of factors, with recent production, age and the structural integrity of football bodies chief among them.
Unfortunately, he’s at a disadvantage after that question was answered throughout an entire season. What we saw in 2014 is that Dockett indeed has value, and the Cardinals certainly could have benefited from his services. But the gap between the Cardinals defense with and without him still isn’t nearly enough of a chasm to justify Dockett’s price tag in 2015.
If a pay cut isn't negotiated, he needs to be released.
Dockett went down in training camp with a torn ACL, an injury thought to be the final death blow to the Cardinals defense. He joined linebackers Daryl Washington (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (left as a free agent) among the core defensive contributors from 2013 who were subtracted before a meaningful game was played.
Soon defensive ends John Abraham and Matt Shaughnessy would crumble too. The epidemic of falling bodies throughout Arizona’s defense (and really, the entire roster) has been well-documented. It’s the leading reason why Bruce Arians will be named Coach of the Year by a mammoth margin.
But something strange happened without Dockett: The Cardinals were just fine.
Oh, there was defensive sadness early. Over their first four games the Cardinals recorded only three sacks. It was assumed that a lack of pressure would continue to leave the secondary exposed, even to the point that supremely talented cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie would struggle.
That happened initially, but then outside linebacker Alex Okafor provided the necessary rear-kicking. After Okafor returned from his own injury in Week 6, the Cardinals averaged 2.7 sacks per game, finishing with a respectable 35 overall despite being nearly blanked for a quarter of the season.
So there’s pass-rushing power coming from other sources. That includes both Okafor and defensive end Calais Campbell, who finished sixth overall among 3-4 defensive ends with 44 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
There are other youthful sources of pressure beyond Okafor, too, defenders who won’t be 34 years old during the 2015 season after recovering from a significant knee injury. Defensive end Ed Stinson’s season was also shortened due to a toe issue, but he impressed during brief appearances. Also on the depth chart behind Dockett is 2014 third-round pick Kareem Martin, who had a sack and four quarterback hurries over only 186 snaps this season, per PFF.
The options to replace Dockett’s pocket push were already showcased in 2014, and they’ll keep coming. The problem here isn’t Dockett’s effectiveness, as at full health he can still make a quarterback’s life unpleasant while also being a key edge-setter against the run. During his last healthy season (2013), the three-time Pro Bowler formed a fierce tandem with Campbell, ranking 10th overall at his position with 40 pressures, per PFF.
No, the problem for Dockett is a common one: His production can be replaced using multiple and far cheaper options.
The dollars associated with Dockett in 2015 aren’t friendly. He’s scheduled to account for a cap hit of $9.8 million, according to Spotrac. A comparison to his position peers puts that bloated valuation into the proper perspective:
|Top 2015 cap hits for 3-4 defensive ends|
|J.J. Watt||$22 million|
|Haloti Ngata||$16 million|
|Calais Campbell||$14.8 million|
|Darnell Dockett||$9.8 million|
|Stephen Bowen||$8 million|
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt rightfully occupies his own salary tier because he’s the best pass-rusher (and athlete?) in this galaxy. But note where Dockett slots in behind him on that list. He’ll be the fourth-highest-paid 3-4 defensive end in 2015. He has value as a run-stuffer, but flirting with a double-digit cap number is monstrous when two-gapping is sometimes part of Dockett's job description.
Say, have I mentioned he’ll be 34 and only a year removed from shredding his knee?
Campbell’s price isn’t cheap either, but it’s far easier to live with investing nearly $15 million against the cap for a much younger pass-rusher (he’s 28) who just finished tied for fourth in sacks at his position. The issues for the Cardinals with Dockett lie in his cost individually and how much of the 2015 salary cap he’ll occupy when combined with Campbell.
Combined, the two are scheduled to be paid roughly $24.6 million against the cap. That's a heavy investment in one position for a team currently projected to be $9.4 million in the red, according to OverTheCap.com.
Dockett’s contribution to that financial burden isn’t ideal for a franchise that’s already having to do a delicate money shuffle with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Though there’s depth at his position too, Fitzgerald led the Cardinals in receptions by a wide margin despite missing two games (he finished with 63, while John Brown was far behind with 48).
Fitzgerald's 2015 cap number is skyrocketing even higher to $23.6 million, per Spotrac. There’s been “positive movement” on the Fitzgerald front with progression toward a potential pay-cut agreement, according to the tweet below from Mike Jurecki of Fox Sports 910 AM. But eventually the Cardinals will have to make a decision between who’s more expendable: Fitzgerald or Dockett.
The answer should be Dockett due to both the aforementioned rising youth and the presence of Frostee Rucker as a veteran safety net.
Rucker isn’t a young man in football years, as he is set to turn 32 at the start of next December. But he’s fresh off a productive season with five sacks, 22 defensive stops and 18 quarterback hits, per PFF. Rucker also has two fully functioning knees and comes with a cap hit over $8 million lower than Dockett’s fee. The money saved can then be thrown at Cromartie, who is the most important pending free agent Arizona needs to retain.
In the NFL, value is tied to how easily a part can be replaced at a lesser price. That’s why those parts are moved so often as they age. Fitzgerald could be gone too, but while aging he still provides a uniquely important presence as a physically dominant receiver after the catch.
Dockett, meanwhile, is both expensive and replaceable. Which is why he’ll likely be playing elsewhere in 2015.