Million Dollar Decision

Is an aging, injury-prone DeMarcus Ware still worth all that Cowboy salary cap space?

Dallas Cowboys must decide if DeMarcus Ware is still worth the money

DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys
For years, DeMarcus Ware has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys. Dallas Cowboys/Facebook
Demarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys
Ware was plagued by injuries and will have surgery on his elbow soon. Dallas Cowboys/Facebook
Dallas Cowboy DeMarcus Ware sacks Jay Cutler
DeMarcus Ware managed just six sacks this season. 
DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys
Ware will turn 32 this July and appears to be on the decline. Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys
DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys
Demarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboy DeMarcus Ware sacks Jay Cutler
DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones was quite clear about one thing during his interview with media covering the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis — a decision will have to be made on defensive end DeMarcus Ware’s contract.

You didn’t have to be a genius to figure that out, of course. All you have to do is look at the Cowboys’ $20 million cap overage for 2014 (which must be shaved by March 11) and Ware’s cap figure of $16 million for 2014, and you get the point.

"We will address it," Jones said on Monday. "We made a change in what he's doing. We put his hand down [to play defensive end], rather than stand him up [to play outside linebacker]. That was a change, and at the same time, he's had a tough time getting on the practice field because of various injuries. All of that we have to weigh with how much of that has impacted ... where he is with his career and his age.

 Ware notched double-digit sacks for seven straight seasons, but 2013 was hard on him. He had the worst season of his career.

"Those are the ingredients in the stew, and we have to stir it up and see where we're going. It will be a very difficult call for us because of how much salary cap he uses."

It’s a value proposition for the Cowboys. Is Ware more valuable to them on the field in 2014 or more valuable to them in the $7.2 million in freed cap space releasing him represents? That is not an easy question to answer.

Up until last season, you would bank on Ware being worth the money. He notched double-digit sacks for seven straight seasons from 2006-2012 and you could hear whispers that, one day, Ware might be a Hall of Famer.

But 2013 was hard on Ware. He experienced the worst season of his career. He managed just six sacks. He missed games due to injury for the first time in his career. He made a transition from a stand-up outside linebacker in the 3-4 to a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end in the 4-3. Ware actually started the season with four sacks in his first three games, but then his body began betraying him.

He scheduled elbow surgery this month, an injury that has nagged him for two years. Plus, there were neck and quadriceps injuries. In 2012, Ware battled a shoulder injury.

Then you throw in Ware’s age — he’ll turn 32 in July — and you see the decision facing the Cowboys. Was 2013 an aberration or a trend?

If the Cowboys believe last year was just a hiccup, then the Cowboys will likely rework Ware’s deal for cap space. There is some maneuverability, as Ware will make $12.25 million in base salary, most of which can be converted to guaranteed money and spread over the remaining years of his contract to free up cap space.

In fact, there is a compelling reason to do this. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and defensive end Anthony Spencer are both free agents. Hatcher has already told reporters he’ll take the highest bid.

Spencer might want to come back for a year, as he missed last season with an injury, but the Cowboys need him to take far less than the $10 million he was paid in 2013. If that pair doesn’t come back and neither does Ware, then the Cowboys’ most experienced defensive end is George Selvie. That won’t scare anyone.

If the Cowboys believe last year was the beginning of the downturn of Ware’s career, however, then they have no choice but to cut him. We’ve seen the Cowboys hang onto veteran players too long too many times with Jones as general manager. The Ware of last year isn’t worth the supreme cap hit the Cowboys would have to absorb.

Forget about a pay cut. Ware took that off the table in January. No, this is all about the Cowboys’ gut feeling about Ware’s future. And this gut check will determine whether Ware is a Cowboys starter or a potential Cowboys opponent in 2014.