Vice president Stephen Jones said upgrading the defensive line is the Dallas Cowboys’ top priority in the off-season via the draft and free agency.
It is, to use the words of coach Jason Garrett, Line 1 in the team’s plan to improve a defense that gave up the most yards in the NFL, third most in league history.
With the 16th overall pick, the Cowboys will likely target a defensive lineman in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft — though the goal will be the take the best available player or get the best value for the pick.
“Don’t get me wrong, we would like to think there is going to be a player there that would merit the pick on the defensive line,” Jones said. “But if it’s not there, we will take another player. It’s a position of need. But if you get into saying I’ve got to take a defensive lineman in the first round, that’s a big mistake. You have to get value for that pick even if you have to move down.
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“But if you see a defensive lineman up higher, then you’ve got to move up. But it’ll be nice to come out of the draft at some point with a defensive front guy, defensive lineman or two.”
If the Cowboys pick a D-lineman in the first round, possibly in a trade down, a popular choice is Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who is considered a perfect fit for the team’s 4-3 defense.
There’s also the free-agent aspect.
The Cowboys are $20 million to $25 million over the projected 2014 salary cap. Jones said the Cowboys will have no problem getting under the cap by March 11, the start of the league year.
“The way to make sure we can take the best player in the draft is to take care of some business before the draft and make sure we have some foundation for our defensive line,” Jones said. “We will address the line in free agency.”
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jason Hatcher is a free agent. Former Pro Bowl defensive end Anthony Spencer is coming off microfracture knee surgery and is also a free agent.
The status of DeMarcus Ware, the team’s all-time leading sacker, is up in the air because of his $16 million contract figure and declining play. He had six sacks last year and underwent elbow surgery on Tuesday.
“We are going to spend our money somewhere. It may be on Hatcher or Spencer or somewhere else,” Jones said. “We are either going to be spending our money on our current defensive line or other players on the defensive line.”
Agent Jordan Woy, who represents Hatcher and Spencer, said the Cowboys have already indicated to him that they want both of his clients to return.
Jones acknowledges the Cowboys’ cash limitations in being aggressive early in free agency but he said the team will be able to do what is needed to get under the cap — though he admits they will let the market dictate their offers to Hatcher, Spencer and anyone else.
Arguably the biggest money decision the Cowboys face is with Ware and his $16 million cap hit and $12 million salary for 2014.
They can restructure it to lower the cap figure by turning the base into signing bonus, ask him to take a pay cut or release him.
The Cowboys have not had any talks with Ware’s agent, Pat Dye, and won’t be rushed to get anything clarified before March 11.
While Dye declined comment on whether Ware would be willing to take a pay cut to stay with the Cowboys, he does believe his client will be back to his dominating style in 2014 after the surgery.
Dye said the elbow was much worse than Ware let on and doctors asked him how he was able to play with the injury. The elbow has actually bothered him the past two years, though Ware rarely let it keep him off the field. He missed three games in 2013 due a quadriceps strain.
Dye is not alone in his assessment. Garrett also believes Ware can still be an elite pass rusher, blaming his declining production on injuries.