In an earlier post here on BTB today, Dave Halprin ran us through a list of defensive ends left on the market. And I came away from that post thinking that there were quite a few options left, each with his own price tag of course.
But that situation may be different at defensive tackle. Since Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli arrived in Dallas last year, we've become very familiar with the importance of the three-technique, or the under-tackle, for the defensive scheme employed by the Cowboys. When Warren Sapp first heard that Dallas was going to switch back to a 4-3 and hire his former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Sapp's first question was: "Who is the motor...? Because it's got to be the 3-technique." Who'll play that position for the 2014 Cowboys?
That three-technique is arguably the most important position on the Cowboys defense, and if the current reports are to be trusted, the Cowboys are hot on the heels of both Jason Hatcher and Henry Melton, either of whom would be a great fit at the three-technique.
Hatcher had a banner year in 2013 playing the three-technique. He collected a league-high 11 sacks at defensive tackle, despite being hampered for a few games by a serious stinger that saw him lose all power to his arm for a while. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 8th best defensive tackle in the league last year. But that career performance also upped his asking price, and Hatcher is looking to cash in on that banner year as a free agent - he's already visited Seattle and Oakland, and has visits lined up with the Titans (today) and Redskins.
Henry Melton had his banner year in 2012, when he was ranked seventh by PFF among all DTs, but suffered an ACL injury early in 2013, from which he has yet to fully recover. In contrast to Hatcher, who'll turn 32 in July, Melton is still relatively young, only turning 28 in October.
Both players are familiar with Marinelli's scheme, Melton from his time with Marinelli in Chicago, Hatcher from last season, and both players would be good solutions to the Cowboys need at the three-technique. But what if the Cowboys miss out on both players in free agency?
Here's an overview of the top-rated defensive tackles who were available in free agency this year. The players are sorted according to a rating each received from CBSSports, and you'll quickly notice that 11 of the top 16 available players are already under contract.
|Top-Rated 2014 Free Agent Defensive Tackles|
|Rank||Player||Age||CBS Rating||2013 Team||2014 Team||Contract Status
|1||Linval Joseph||25||87.0||N.Y. Giants||Minnesota||5 years, $31.5 million|
|2||Jason Hatcher||32||80.5||Dallas||- -
|3||Arthur Jones||28||79.5||Baltimore||Indianapolis||5 years, $33 million|
|4||Randy Starks||30||74.5||Miami||Miami||2 years, $10 million|
|5||Tyson Jackson||28||73.5||Kansas City||Atlanta||5 years, $25 million|
|6||Paul Soliai||30||72.0||Miami||Atlanta||5 years, $32 million|
|7||Henry Melton||27||70.5||Chicago||- -
|8||B.J. Raji||28||70.0||Green Bay||- -
|9||Pat Sims||28||67.5||Oakland||- -
|10||Clinton McDonald||27||67.0||Seattle||Tampa Bay||4 years, $12 million|
|11||Jonathan Babineaux||32||65.0||Atlanta||Atlanta||3 years, $ 9 million|
|12||Ryan Pickett||34||63.0||Green Bay||- -
|13||Tony McDaniel||29||62.0||Seattle||Seattle||2 years, $6.3 million|
|14||Ziggy Hood||27||56.0||Pittsburgh||Jacksonville||Terms undisclosed|
|15||Earl Mitchell||26||54.5||Houston||Miami||4 years, $16 million|
|16||Corey Peters||26||53.5||Atlanta||Atlanta||1 year, $1.6 million|
|17||Alex Carrington||27||50.5||Buffalo||- -
|18||Isaac Sopoaga||32||50.5||New England||- -
|19||Vance Walker||27||47.5||Oakland||- -
|20||Terrence Cody||26||45.5||Baltimore||- -
|21||Kevin Williams||34||43.5||Minnesota||- -
But it's not just the fact that the defensive tackles are are being signed very fast. The key issue for the Cowboys here is that outside of Hatcher and Melton, they don't really have any options for the three-technique. The list above is full of one-techniques or even classic 3-4 nose tackles. Alex Carrington may be the only other player on the list suited for the position, but he's coming off a torn quad that sidelined him for most of 2013. Regardless, per PFF he could offer some upside, and beggars can't be choosers:
Carrington is an interesting player in this year’s free agent market in that he has shown some serious potential in the past but missed almost all of 2013 through injury. He seemed to get lost as the Buffalo Bills switched defensive schemes in the past but looked really impressive as an interior pass rusher in 2012, racking up a +9.6 pass rushing grade on limited duty that was bettered by only 11 other defensive tackles. His best fit is likely as an interior pass rusher in passing situations and he makes a lot of sense for any team trying to emulate that aspect of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks defense.
The Cowboys are in a delicate spot. They probably need to get either Hatcher or Melton, as they are unlikely to find a starter-quality three-technique in free agency outside of those two. There's a remote chance that either Tyrone Crawford or Ben Bass could emerge as potential three-techniques, but that's not the type of chance you want to take when you're putting together a team that you hope will be competitive.
Mike Fisher wrote yesterday that the Cowboys are involved in a "delicate dance" with Hatcher and Melton as they try to court both without offending either - and keep the other DT-needy teams at bay. In any case, both Hatcher and Melton will come with a hefty price tag: going by the top DT contracts this year, both will be looking for deals upwards of $6 million per year.