Position Breakdown: Defensive Line

KEY PLAYERS

Jay Ratliff – It was a down year for the defense as a whole, but top players like DeMarcus Ware and Terence Newman still had a high level of statistical production.  The same cannot be said for Ratliff, who disappeared both from the box scores and the highlight tapes.  I theorized about Ratliff’s struggles and possible solutions in a previous blog (link), but to summarize I think his being an undersized nose tackle is catching up with him.  There’s been no indication that he’ll make a change to defensive end this year, but another tough season will definitely make it a hot topic next summer.

Marcus Spears – There’s a wide range of opinion on the value and performance level of Spears, and with that equally various feelings about whether or not the former first-round pick should be re-signed.  I definitely lean toward “Underrated” in my impression of Spears, citing his great play against the run and durability as a guy who rarely misses games.  However, I also appreciate where some of the negative views of Spears come from.  You’d like to have a dominant force like Richard Seymour or Haloti Ngata when you draft a 3-4 end in the first round, and that draft label has been Spears’ curse.  I think Dallas will be disappointed if they let him walk in favor if promoting a guy like Bowen or Hatcher, but I’m fine with it if it means an impact signing like Cullen Jenkins is his replacement.

Igor Olshansky – If all of the other defensive ends weren’t free agents, maybe there’d be some talk of releasing Olshansky.  While we praised the signing at the time, thinking Igor would provide close to what we had in Chris Canty at a much better price, he has not come close to making the impact that Canty did.  You can’t completely dismiss Igor as he had a hand in Ware’s league-leading sack total last year, but for a guy who supposedly has freakish strength he just doesn’t seem to have much of a presence on the field.  That said, the uncertainty at the other DE spot and even in the backup roles makes it a bad time for additional changes.

Stephen Bowen – The former undrafted rookie has done very well for himself, becoming a trusted reserve and a guy many fans want the team to re-sign.  While not the physical specimen that Hatcher is, Bowen shows up on the field and plays against the run and pass effectively.  We could easily see both players retained, but if Dallas has to make a choice then my vote would be for Bowen as he has the versatility to step in for a starter, while Hatcher is more of a nickel specialist.

Jason Hatcher – Potential, upside, physical tools… these have been the buzzwords for Hatcher since he arrived in Dallas.  It’s been five years, though, and we’ve yet to see much production.  With Bowen having distinguished himself as a reserve and a young prospect in Sean Lissemore still around, the clock may have run out on Hatcher.  He’ll be hoping that Spears walks away and that we don’t bring in a new guy, meaning he and Bowen will get to compete in camp for the starting job.  At worst in that scenario he’d be the primary backup.

 

DRAFT CLASS IMPACT

It’s been reported that Dallas tried to move up into the late first round to draft a defensive end, so if that’s true it’s surprising they came away with none by the end of the weekend.  Obviously we’ve yet to see what the undrafted free agent pool will offer, but if there was anyone they liked they’d have probably snatched them in the late rounds due to the need at that position. 

 

FREE AGENCY POTENTIAL

As mentioned already, the Packers’ Cullen Jenkins is the major name available.  I am one of many who believe he’d be a better signing than Nnamdi Asomugha considering the need at that position and the upgrade he’d provide from what we’ve had previously.  Adding another disruptive element to the line will do wonders for Ratliff as well as linebackers rushing up the middle.

If not Jenkins, there are some other options should they not retain Spears or promote Bowen and Hatcher.  Kenyon Coleman, a former Cowboy and lately a Browns player under Rob Ryan, would make a lot of sense if they have trouble re-signing players.  Long-time Jets end Shaun Ellis, though older, would also be a decent band-aid if things don’t go well on the market.

 

2011 OUTLOOK

I want to take you back to last offseason and the safety position for a moment.  Ken Hamlin was a disappointing, overpaid starter who many fans wanted to see gone.  It happened, and thus we had an unproven Alan Ball and no depth behind him.  Looking back, I’m sure many wish we’d held on to Hamlin.

This offseason, we have a disappointing starter in Spears.  It’s easy to let him go because he’s a free agent, but are setting ourselves up for another mistake?  Bowen may be more proven than Ball was, but as a full-time starter?  We tried to play this game last year and lost.  Even if Bowen works out starting, we’ve hurt our depth and would be relying on Hatcher or even Lissemore as reserves.

In an ideal world I’d cut Olshansky, re-sign Spears, sign Cullen Jenkins, and bring back Bowen and Hatcher for depth.  No way do I get all of these wishes, but if we could sign Jenkins and at least bring back Bowen as a primary backup then I’d feel better about the DE spot now than I have since Canty left.

As for the defensives tackles, hopefully some scheme changes and increased pressure from other areas will help get Ratliff back into form.  I really like backup tackle Josh Brent and hope he gets opportunities.  If Olshansky were to be injured, I’d really like to see them experiment with Ratliff moving to end and Brent playing as the primary nose tackle.

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