More Substance Than Sizzle

Entering this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys knew they had three defensive ends headed toward free agency: Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen.

Team sources have said they'd like to sign all three, but there has been widespread speculation that the financial structure of the team might force the Cowboys to let one of them accept a contract from another team.

The initial thinking was that Spears would be the top priority of the three, considering his status as a former first-round pick and a starter, but as the 2009 season went along, that began to change. Hatcher showed his value against both the run and the pass, and there were some at Valley Ranch who thought it was Bowen who was playing the best of the three by the end of the season.

So Tuesday's announcement that Spears (along with linebacker Steve Octavien) had signed his tender with the team came as a slight surprise, although all three of the free agents have received little public interest from around the league. What's even more strange is that Spears signed for just over $1.2 million, while Hatcher and Bowen received tenders of a little over $1.75 million.

None of the three is in line to make huge money. They could — the team has deep pockets, and owner Jerry Jones is not averse to signing players to big contracts. Plus, with no salary cap in 2010, teams can pay their players as much as they want.

But there is an unwritten pecking order that comes into play. Jones can pay his players whatever he chooses, but if he were to break the bank for every player whose contract is up for renewal, that would guarantee the agents for some other players would be seeking raises for their clients … quickly.

DeMarcus Ware was chosen nine selections ahead of Spears in the 2005 NFL Draft, and each has been productive. But Ware is a superstar — and paid like it, at an average of $11.3 million per year in the new seven-year, $79 million contract he signed last year — while Spears is a cog in the machine. He's a valuable cog, to be sure, but his play is not flashy and his statistics are not gaudy. Linebackers in the 3-4 defense benefit from the work of big, strong defensive ends like Spears, Hatcher, Bowen and Igor Olshansky, and subsequently it is the linebackers like Ware — and perhaps Anthony Spencer in the future — who end their seasons in the Pro Bowl.

Spears' decision to sign his one-year tender could well be a precursor to negotiating a longer, more lucrative deal. On a defense with Ware, nose tackle Jay Ratliff, Terence Newman, Keith Brooking, Bradie James, Olshansky, Ware isn't likely to creep into the upper echelon of the team's top-paid defensive players.

But his decision to sign was a critical, if somewhat under-the-radar, victory for Dallas. Tough, burly defensive ends are productive in the Cowboys' defense in part because of what they allow their teammates to do. Spears is an underappreciated player who never will garner many headlines, but is important to the success of the Dallas defense.

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