Hatcher is coming off a career year with the Cowboys, earning his first Pro Bowl berth after a career-high 11-sack season.
The Cowboys have the necessary funds to make a play for Hatcher. However, his age -- Hatcher turns 32 in July -- could push them to a younger player at his position such as Henry Melton, who is 27.
The Cowboys will designate Austin a post-June 1 cut, which will free up $5.5 million against the cap in 2014. The Cowboys will not have access to the room until June 1 and will likely need it to sign their draft picks. Austin will count $5.236 million against the salary cap in 2015.
Austin will be the second former Pro Bowler the Cowboys cut ties with in as many days, joining DeMarcus Ware, who was released on Tuesday, saving $7.4 million against the cap.
Austin, who turns 30 in June, joined the Cowboys in 2006 as an undrafted free agent form Monmouth and returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the wild-card loss to the Seattle Seahawks. He did not become a regular offensive player until 2009 when he burst on the scene with a franchise-record 250 yards on 10 catches against the Kansas City Chiefs. Austin scored two touchdowns, including the 60-yard game winner in overtime.
Austin finished the season with 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns and was named to the Pro Bowl.
The Cowboys signed Austin to a six-year, $54 million contract in 2010 that included $18 million in guaranteed money. He was named to the Pro Bowl again after finishing with 69 catches for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns.
The NFL, however, penalized the Cowboys $10 million in salary-cap room over two seasons in part because of how the deal was structured in what was the uncapped year.
Last season for the Chicago Bears, Melton played in just three games before suffering his knee injury. In 2012, Melton was selected to the Pro Bowl while playing for then-defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Now Marinelli is the Cowboys defensive coordinator, and if Melton's health checks out it could be a good fit.
Melton, a Dallas native, played college ball at Texas.
But could the Cowboys end up seeing Ware twice a year?
ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick wonders if Ware could end up with the Philadelphia Eagles.
I would bet Philly is working hard to get Demarcus Ware. Very hard.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) March 11, 2014
Now wouldn't that be a kick to the Cowboys and their fans to see Ware end up in Philadelphia?
The Eagles play a 3-4, which might be a better fit for Ware than playing defensive end in a 4-3. They have Trent Cole playing outside linebacker and he had eight sacks in 2013, but he seems to be more of a defensive end playing outside linebacker than a true outside linebacker.
Cole has been solid. Ware has been special.
According to a source close to Ware, the seven-time Pro Bowler will be selective in where he looks and would like to make a decision quickly. The Eagles have cap space. They have a team that looks to be on the rise with Chip Kelly.
It might be something to keep watching.
It will be hard for the Cowboys to stomach because there will be noise from here, there and everywhere if Ware has a 15-sack season and is as dominant as ever, but it would not necessarily mean they made the wrong move in letting their all-time leader in sacks go. If anything, the Cowboys decided to make a move a year too early rather than a year too late by releasing Ware.
"I want to be quiet," Ware said almost a month ago before undergoing elbow surgery. "I just want to let my actions speak for themself. But I do chuckle a little bit because I know there’s a tornado coming."
When he arrived from Troy in 2005, there were some doubts that he could not only make the jump from that level of football to the NFL but from defensive end to outside linebacker. Bill Parcells did not have many doubts, even if he wanted Marcus Spears with the No. 11 pick. Parcells quickly mentioned Lawrence Taylor after the Cowboys took Ware, so I wouldn’t say he didn’t want Ware.
He had seven straight seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had seasons of 20 and 19.5 sacks.
But injuries knocked him down in 2012 and ’13. The Cowboys did not view this from only a 2013 prism only. Even though Ware had 11.5 sacks in 2012, they felt the decline had started.
The move to the 4-3 might have quickened the fall, but there are images of Ware I can’t get out of my head.
It is of Ware in Oxnard, Calif., in training camp. Day after day he repeatedly beat Tyron Smith. He did it in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He did it in team drills. He was the best player in training camp almost every day. Better than Dez Bryant. Better than Sean Lee. Better than Jason Witten. Better than Smith.
He had four sacks in his first three games but then the injuries piled up. Ware's practice time became limited and his production sank.
There is good football left in Ware. He showed it last summer against one of the best left tackles in football.
The Cowboys will only see it if the next team he signs with his is on their schedule or if they pay attention to the highlights.
This is how important DeMarcus Ware was to the Dallas Cowboys:
Remember that Sunday afternoon in Detroit when Dez Bryant was yelling and screaming and the team was telling you it was all productive criticism? It was, and it wasn't.
Bryant was angry about what was happening on the field. He kept yelling and yelling until another of the Cowboys' leaders, tight end Jason Witten, told him to head to the locker room if he didn't like how things were going.
Bryant stepped up to Witten just as the tight end put on his helmet to get ready for work, but Ware -- who was sidelined by a quad injury -- jumped in. He grabbed Bryant and gave him that stare. It was the look your mom and dad gave you if you messed up.
Bryant shut it down, and after the game hugged Witten, and all was forgotten.
If not for Ware snatching Bryant and telling him to calm down, who knows what might have happened that Sunday afternoon at Ford Field.
The Cowboys lost one of their professional football players on Tuesday afternoon.
This is what Ware meant to the Cowboys. He was their elite pass-rusher, their top defensive player, and in some years their top player overall. He was also their leader in the locker room.
Ware would show the younger players about his pass-rush moves because that's what you do when you grow up under Bill Parcells. You teach the young players how to be a pro.
But the seven-time Pro Bowler, the franchise's all-time sacks leader, a man who never missed a game in his first eight seasons, is gone.
Ware took the correct stance by declining a pay cut. With his years of service, he didn't deserve one. Of course, the team thought differently and decided to release him. The team will save $7.4 million. A replacement isn't on the roster currently, the Cowboys need one, and this year's draft is not one where pass-rushers are a strength. Last year, they could have had one, but messed up in the war room.
Ware played with elbow, shoulder, quad, back and neck issues. Prior to the 2013 season, Ware wore a shoulder harness because of surgery. He played last season with nerve damage in his elbow that eventually forced him to get surgery.
Team officials are still stunned he continued playing.
In 2009, he was carried off the field at then-Cowboys Stadium because of a severe neck injury. There was no way Ware was supposed to play the next week at New Orleans.
But he did. He came off the bench and recorded two sacks as the Cowboys knocked off the then-undefeated Saints. Ware was so good in that game that his replacement, Victor Butler, was benched to start the second half.
Ware wasn't perfect; his body started to break down too much, he compiled just six sacks in 2013 and missed three games. At some point, veteran players become ex-veterans because the team needs to save cap space and find younger talent.
While owner and general manager Jerry Jones said it was extremely difficult to release Ware, he didn't believe it was important enough to have him retire as a Cowboy, the way the Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to do with Troy Polamalu and what the Baltimore Ravens did with Ray Lewis last year.
It's hard. I understand the salary cap has to be managed and sometimes there will be sacrifices to create room for other personnel. But I think somehow, the Cowboys should have made this work.
And because they didn't, they have lost a leader on and off the field.
IRVING, Texas -- Now that the Dallas Cowboys have decided to part ways with DeMarcus Ware, their all-time leader in sacks, they must figure out a way to replace his production and more than just the six sacks he recorded in 2013.
The Cowboys will gain $7.4 million in salary cap space by releasing Ware, which will give them enough room to add whoever they want to add on a defense that is in need of even more help without Ware.
As a point of reference, the Cowboys signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2012 and his first-year cap number was $3.2 million.
The best way to replace Ware is with a number of players. The key to the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme is sustained pressure with their front four. Bringing those players in waves is what works best. With Ware scheduled to make $12.75 million in base salary and offseason workouts in 2014, the Cowboys have to re-configure that money to multiple players.
The chances of re-signing Jason Hatcher have improved, but he will receive interest from other teams and will want to check out what others have to say.
If the Cowboys can get a veteran pass-rusher at the price that teams paid Dwight Freeney and Osi Umenyiora a year ago (two years, a little more than $4 million annually), then that is a route they will go.
If they want to spend a little more, then keep an eye on Willie Young of the Detroit Lions. He is something of a forgotten man on the Lions' defensive line, but he has had his moments against the Cowboys.
This point, however, has to be perfectly clear: the defensive line has gone from a need to a must for the Cowboys.
It is quite possible George Selvie will be their top returning defensive lineman in 2013, and he did not join the roster until training camp started.
Somebody send Jones a bottle of vintage port. He deserves it. Finally, he is behaving like a general manager instead of a fan.
Jones made the difficult decision after the 31-year-old Ware refused to have his salary slashed from $12.25 million.
As good as he has been since the Cowboys made him the 11th player selected in the 2005 draft, Ware shouldn't have felt compelled to take a pay cut. Last season was the first time in his career that he recorded fewer than eight sacks. Just so you know, Jason Hatcher in nine seasons has had just one year with more than six sacks, and Anthony Spencer has done it once in eight seasons.
Spend some time on social media, and detect an undercurrent of anger directed at Ware because he declined a pay cut. Some folks believe it exhibits a lack of loyalty to the franchise that drafted him.
Salute the man. He has been exemplary on and off the field. There's no need for either side to be bitter. This is a business decision by both parties.
Actually, if the Cowboys had done a better job of drafting and developing players so they didn't get into a salary-cap pinch, then Ware wouldn't have had to decide where to end his career. It's the Cowboys, with their poor salary-cap management and yearly restructures, that pushed Ware's 2014 cap figure to $16 million.
IRVING, Texas -- DeMarcus Ware is no longer a Dallas Cowboy.
The Cowboys have released their all-time leader in sacks, saving $7.4 million against the salary cap but creating the need to find a pass-rusher for a defense that struggled to get to the quarterback in 2013.
Ware put up 117 sacks in nine seasons with the Cowboys, earning Pro Bowl honors every year from 2006 to 2012, but he had a career-low six sacks in 2013 and missed the first three games with a quadriceps strain. Ware, who turns 32 in July, was set to count $16.003 million against the cap with a $12.25 million base salary.
"A decision like this, involving a man who is a cornerstone player in the history of your franchise, is extremely difficult," said Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner and general manager.
The Cowboys selected Ware in the first round of the 2005 draft, No. 11 overall, and then-coach Bill Parcells immediately compared him to Lawrence Taylor. The Cowboys moved to a 3-4 defense and Ware became one of the most dominant pass-rushers in the NFL, earning All-Pro honors six times. He had a streak of seven seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had 20 sacks in 2008 and 19.5 sacks in 2011. Only Hall of Famer Reggie White (five) had more 15-sack seasons in a career than Ware (three).
But with his salary and recent injury history -- he had shoulder surgery after the 2012 season and is recovering from elbow surgery this offseason -- the Cowboys decided to part ways with one of the best defensive players in franchise history.
According to a source close to Ware, he will look to make a decision on his playing future quickly and will be selective on where he goes.
Denver has emerged as the favorite to land Ware, league sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter, with another source telling ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins that Ware is planning to visit the Broncos.
More than a dozen teams are interested in Ware, including multiple playoff contenders. But Denver is being aggressive on Ware, and wants him to form a tag team with Von Miller
The Cowboys have declared Ware will not remain on the roster at his current salary of $12.25 million and have proposed a reduction that would enable him to continue his career in Dallas.
It is unknown what salary the Cowboys have proposed for Ware -- the franchise leader in sacks -- or whether they intend to honor his request. Because the team is under the salary cap, it does not have to release him for a savings of $7.4 million to be in compliance.
Theoretically, the Cowboys might gain leverage if they retain Ware beyond the early part of free agency, allowing teams to spend money on players at his position and creating a depressed market for Ware if he doesn't consent to their proposed pay cut.
Ware had a career-low six sacks and missed games because of injury for the first time in his career last season, when he played defensive end in what was one of the worst defensive seasons in franchise history.
It is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but in the last week two defensive ends have signed contracts that could be an indication of what Hatcher, who led the Cowboys in sacks (11) in 2013, gets paid.
The Minnesota Vikings signed Everson Griffen to a five-year, $42.5 million deal with $20 million guaranteed. He had 17.5 sacks in his first four seasons and has started only one game. The Vikings, however, are changing the face of their defensive line and will likely say goodbye to Jared Allen and Kevin Williams in favor of Griffen and Sharrif Floyd.
Griffen is also 26.
On Monday, the Seattle Seahawks re-signed Michael Bennett to a four-year, $28.5 million deal with $16 million guaranteed. Bennett had 8.5 sacks in 2013 in helping the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. He has 23.5 sacks in his career, including 17.5 in the last two seasons.
He is 28.
Hatcher’s first bite at the free-agent market came in 2011 after a lockout. Teams acted quickly and Hatcher took a three-year, $6 million deal from the Cowboys. Up to that point he had started one game and never had more than 2.5 sacks in a season.
Now 31 and coming off his best season, Hatcher wants to cash in. If Griffen can get a deal worth $8.5 million annually and Bennett, who is better than Griffen, gets $7.125 million annually, then does that keep Hatcher in the $6 million-a-year neighborhood? Maybe it's in the mid-$5 million range.
He plays a different position, but ends tend to have more value than tackles, even in a 4-3. Age will also be a factor. It can be argued Hatcher does not have as many miles on his soon-to-be 32-year-old body, but that won’t inflate his price that much.
The Cowboys would have to create cap room for a deal. They could re-work the deal for DeMarcus Ware or release the seven-time Pro Bowler, or they cut lower-priced players to fit Hatcher’s first-year cap figure. They don’t want to restructure anymore contracts.
Teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are believed to have interest in Hatcher, but what type of interest is it?
It seemed like a foregone conclusion when the season ended that Hatcher would not be with the Cowboys in 2014, but the salary cap has increased and his price might be more palatable than originally believed.
How much salary cap space? The Cowboys have $1.1 million worth of space available, lowest in the NFL. This could increase if the team restructures, releases or gets DeMarcus Ware to take a pay cut. If Ware is released the team opens $7.4 million in space.
What about Miles Austin? He’s currently on the roster, but it’s doubtful he’ll remain there. The Cowboys can make Austin a post-June 1 cut after free agency starts today and create $5.5 million in cap space. The team can’t get the savings until, well, after June 1.
Highest cap numbers for 2014: Ware $16 million, Brandon Carr $12.2 million, Tony Romo $11.7 million, Jason Witten $8.4 million and Miles Austin $8.2 million.
Notable free agents: Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer and Ernie Sims enter free agency today. The team will let all three test the market, but have a better chance at bringing Spencer back. Hatcher is looking for a big money deal and the Cowboys, at least right now, are against doing that. Spencer is returning from microfracture surgery and could return for a much lower financial deal. Sims, a veteran backup linebacker, most likely will sign elsewhere.
Who are the Cowboys are looking at? Everybody. Well, anybody they can afford. The Cowboys want upgrades along the defensive line, free safety and linebacker. Denver weakside linebacker Wesley Woodyard is someone the team has interest in. If backup quarterback Kyle Orton retires, then getting a veteran to backup Tony Romo becomes important. The team has worked out Mike Kafka, David Carr, Tyler Thigpen, John Skelton, Richard Bartel and Caleb Hanie in the last few months.
If the Dallas Cowboys have learned anything, it’s that they should use coupons.
From 2006-11, the Cowboys signed 12 players in unrestricted free agency. Only two players who signed multi-year deals reached the end of their contracts: Kyle Kosier signed a five-year, $15 million deal with the Cowboys in 2006 and was with the team through 2011. Keith Brooking signed a three-year, $6 million deal in 2009 and was a contributor through 2011.
Igor Olshansky (2009), Leonard Davis (2007) and Akin Ayodele (2006) are the only other players who made it more than one season on their original deals, and Olshansky and Ayodele made it only two seasons.
The Cowboys signed seven unrestricted free agents in 2012 and three lasted one season (Dan Connor, Nate Livings and Lawrence Vickers) on multi-year deals. Brodney Pool signed a one-year deal and barely made it to training camp.
Three members of the 2012 free-agent class remain: Brandon Carr (five years, $50 million), Mackenzy Bernadeau (four years, $11.5 million) and Kyle Orton (three years, $10.5 million). Carr is coming off a disappointing 2013 season, Bernadeau took a pay cut last week and Orton is not sure he wants to play.
Spending money in free agency is hardly ever the answer. The Cowboys will not have a ton of money available to them when the market opens until the DeMarcus Ware situation is resolved, and even then they will have to be wise with how they spend it and who they spend it on.
The needs are obvious: defense, defense and more defense. That’s what happens when a unit finishes last in the NFL in 2013. But the Cowboys could use a veteran presence at wide receiver (Robert Meachem, Jason Avant) and a backup quarterback if Orton walks away (Shaun Hill).
Finding defensive line help is a must, but the Cowboys will have to be budget conscious. They have had on and off talks with Jordan Woy, who represents free agents Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer, for most of the offseason. Both players could find better financial opportunities elsewhere.
Hatcher turns 32 in July and is coming off a career-high 11 sacks. He was added to the Pro Bowl. Spencer played in only one game in 2013 because of a knee injury that will not be healed enough for him to be 100 percent ready for training camp.
How much of a commitment can the Cowboys make and feel like they will get their money’s worth?
Ties to new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli could help in the pursuit of Henry Melton, but he is coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Value is often the most overlooked part of free agency. The big-money signings lead to the biggest headlines, but do not correspond enough to wins and losses.
The Cowboys found value in Kosier, Brooking, Gerald Sensabaugh and Bernadeau but did not or have not received enough bang for the buck in Carr ($26.5 million guarantee) and Davis ($18.75 million guaranteed).
As the Cowboys look to clear this 8-8 bump that has turned into Mt. Everest, they need to spend wisely, but more importantly they need to choose wisely.