Sunday, October 1, 2023 Oct 1, 2023
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Yes, the Cowboys Should Cave and Give Zack Martin a New Deal

He's the best interior offensive lineman in football, one of the greatest Cowboys in history, and Dallas can't win without him. No wonder he's holding out.
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Even as he nears his 33rd birthday, Martin remains Dallas' best offensive player. Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys opened training camp on Wednesday without their best offensive player on the field. In fact, he was nowhere to be found. Six-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin opted not to report to camp over frustration with his contract, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. 

My first reaction upon hearing this was probably something borne out of my situation as a father of two young children, and it was along the lines of, “Can we just go one day–one day!–without something catastrophic happening?” These Cowboys are in win-now mode. Their franchise quarterback is nearing the end of his prime, their head coach was a betting favorite to be fired last season, and their owner and general manager routinely makes jokes about not having much time left to be alive. So kicking off this training camp having to deal with a holdout from a team captain and offensive anchor is less than ideal.

Martin, who will turn 33 in November, has two years left on the six-year contract he signed in 2018. His $14 million annual salary ranks eighth among all offensive guards. Jerry Jones initially declined to comment in the club’s opening press conference on Tuesday. Almost immediately afterward, Schefter’s report was posted, because that’s how these things work. In a follow-up, per The Athletic, Jones had this to say: “Agreements have to really be solid or you couldn’t maintain a roster, if you reshuffle the deck every year. You have to rely on those contracts. This isn’t reflecting Zack, it’s just you have to rely on the integrity of your contract.” Obviously, there is irony here, as the Cowboys reshuffle the deck and restructure contracts every offseason. What Martin is asking for is different from just a normal restructure, but it still rings a bit hollow for Jones to phrase it this way.

I don’t fault either side in this matter. Martin knows he’s the best in the business and that he isn’t paid as such. The market for interior offensive linemen has moved significantly since he signed his deal. He also knows that in two years, there’s a chance he is no longer viewed as a player who can command a huge salary. 

On the Cowboys’ side, they know they have a number of young players who will command a large pay day, as evidenced by the recent $97 million contract extension for cornerback Trevon Diggs. (That’s not how I would have played it.) Martin and his camp are essentially playing the only card they have to play, and aside from the $50,000-a-day fine he could be subjected to, there isn’t much downside to playing it.

Martin’s age is certainly working against him. But it should be emphatically stated: Zack Martin is still the most dominant interior lineman in the league. It has been that way since he entered the league as a first-round draft pick in 2014. His 5,724 pass-blocking snaps are the sixth-most over that time. (As a brief aside, try to wrap your head around that number, and what a human body endures on each of those snaps. If it doesn’t make your bones hurt, you’re tougher than I am.) Pro Football Focus gives him the sixth-highest grade of any offensive lineman over that stretch. His pressure rate yielded ranks 13th-best, and he has been charged with allowing just 11 sacks. You read that right: Martin has dropped into pass protection more than 5,000 times over the past nine years and has allowed 11 sacks. That’s once every 520 drop-backs, on average a little more than once a season. We are talking about one of the best offensive lineman in the history of the sport. We sometimes forget exactly what we have been lucky enough to witness when evaluating his career.

The team knows this. The Cowboys’ player personnel department is full of some of the brightest people in the industry. That’s how you end up drafting a future first-ballot Hall of Fame player in the first place. At this point, however, we should all remember that Jones did not want to draft Martin; he wanted Johnny Manziel. For whatever reason, Jones went on to tell ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. this piece of information, saying, “When we were on the clock, I said, if we pick the other guy–any other guy–it would be a ticket to parity, more 8-8 seasons.” I have never understood why that needed to be made public, and I think about that quote a lot. And if I think about it a lot, there’s a good chance Zack Martin and his agent think about it a lot, too. 

Of course, there’s also a chance this is simply the case of a great player feeling underpaid and knowing he won’t have another opportunity to be paid as the best. But I do wonder why these situations even have to get to this point. The Cowboys have the fourth-most cap space in the league, per Why not just give Martin a restructured three-year extension at $21 million a year, making him the highest-paid interior lineman, and be done with it? He’s absolutely still worth a salary that puts him at the top of the annual earnings list for his position. Perhaps that has been offered, and Martin’s camp is being unreasonable. I doubt that, but we can’t be sure.

Patient Zero for any issues the Cowboys have in paying players is, of course, Ezekiel Elliott. After releasing Elliott during the offseason, the team carries a dead cap charge of almost $6 million into next season. As it turns out, that’s almost exactly the amount it would take to make Martin the highest-paid guard in the league. There will come a day when I stop bringing this up; today is not that day.

My guess is in the next week both sides will come to an agreement that gives Martin a bump up from $14 million a year to something around $18 million, adds a couple of years of security for the player, and we all move on. I can certainly see the argument that Martin signed a contract, and now he has to live with it. But a holdout is the only leverage he has to being paid as the best player at his position, so I don’t fault him for utilizing that tool. 

If nothing else, Martin’s name being in the news is an opportunity for us to all pause and appreciate how truly special he is. He’s as impactful as an interior offensive lineman can be, and despite what we were told, an essential part of not falling into more 8-8 seasons. Certainly not on a team that is in win-now mode and doesn’t need any distractions.


Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who currently works for…

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