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Diamond In The Rough: Jason Hatcher's Future

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Jason Hatcher's final contract year and breakout year are one and the same. Will his future as a Cowboy play out the way Anthony Spencer's did after the 2012 season? Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Jason Hatcher's final contract year and breakout year are one and the same. Will his future as a Cowboy play out the way Anthony Spencer's did after the 2012 season? Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

The Dallas Cowboys' defense hasn’t had much to brag about this year. Yet DT Jason Hatcher, a quiet Pro Bowl lock and emergent playmaker in the pass rush, has been a steady and genuine bright spot. But his breakout season may be coming too late and at too inopportune a time.

The three-year, $6 million contract of Hatcher, who leads the team in sacks (nine) and tackles for losses (five), expires after the season. Despite playing inside for the first time in his career, he’s become an anchoring force on a battered D-line: a source of relief for DeMarcus Ware and, according to Cowboys Executive VP Stephen Jones, a leader in the locker room.

As the story notes, the Cowboys will begin 2014 deep in the red — as much as $31 million over the cap. Much like 2013, it’ll be a mad slash-and-scramble to get under — one that leaves no money or brainpower to reboot a deal like Hatcher’s. Like DE Anthony Spencer in 2012, who recorded 11.5 sacks while also manning a new position, Hatcher’s stock with management has risen considerably. And like Spencer, he’d presumably have to sign a one- or two-year deal to remain a Cowboy.

But unlike the case of Spencer — the $10.6 million franchise tag for 2013 who’s knee injury has limited him to about 30 snaps — it’s easy to see Hatcher’s breakout season in Dallas being his last. The 6-6 Hatcher has proven he has the necessary combination of strength and agility to thrive at defensive tackle. A defensive end by trade, he brings a pass rusher’s natural speed and read-react to both the run and pass defense. His injury history is encouraging for a lineman: nine missed games in eight years.

Bottom line: Hatcher can supply immediate depth and playmaking. On top of all that, it seems unlikely that, save for personal reasons, Hatcher would push to stay in Dallas. Why? For starters, he can get paid if he tests the market. He has experience — an ingredient every winning defense fails without. He’s started in both the 3-4 and 4-3. And at 31 and having earned a backup’s salary for most of his career, it’s plausible to think Hatcher might be feeling some urgency with his finances. And, again, the Cowboys are in no position to oblige.

Second, he’s worn the Blue Star for eight years, and has been part of just one playoff win — and that as a reserve. Between the recent play-calling snafu and statistical unraveling of Monte Kiffin’s scheme, the blown draft picks and overinflated contracts of the past, the franchise has proven it’s no closer to a Super Bowl than when Hatcher arrived in 2006. Sure, there’s nice talent in place at the moment. But that’s always the case in Dallas, and the man repeatedly steering the ship into waters of mediocrity isn’t about to change course or step down.

With DT Nick Hayden and DE George Selvie finding their grooves in 2013 and Spencer returning alongside Ware in 2014, Hatcher’s presence could be the piece de resistance of a nasty defensive line. But at this early stage, it seems much more likely that he’ll be lost to free agency — the second Cowboy D-lineman in two years to have a career year then disappear.