Position series: Cowboys defensive line

June, 18, 2012
6/18/12
2:48
PM ET
Our position-by-position analysis of the teams in the NFC East takes a look this afternoon at the 3-4 defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys.

Projected starters: DE Jason Hatcher, NT Jay Ratliff, DE Kenyon Coleman

Reserves: DE Marcus Spears, DE Sean Lissemore, NT Josh Brent, DE Tyrone Crawford, DE Clifton Geathers, DT Rob Callaway, DE Ben Bass

[+] EnlargeJay Ratliff
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDallas needs to make sure Jay Ratliff does not wear down over the course of the season.
Potential strength: Ratliff is the line's strength, as he remains one of the league's elite nose tackles and one of the best all-around athletes at the position. There are very few, if any, nose tackles in the league that are as great an asset to the pass rush as Ratliff is, and the Cowboys' goal should be to keep him from wearing down as the season goes along. Part of the problem he and outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware had late last year was wear and tear as a result of constant double-teaming and extra attention. That's why Brent, as Ratliff's backup, must become a strength as well. Because it may start making sense to find strategic ways of getting Ratliff on the field on some running downs, at least early in the season.

Potential weakness: The Cowboys were tied for seventh in the league in sacks last season but 23rd in passing yards allowed. And while a lot of that had to do with a leaky secondary that has been addressed in free agency and in the draft, the guys up front need to find a way to create more consistent pressure on the passer. Hatcher grades out well in the pass rush, and we already addressed Ratliff. But the Cowboys need to find something scarier than Coleman at that other end spot. Spears doesn't appear to be the answer, which is one reason Lissemore is being talked up as an offseason sleeper. He played extremely well in limited action last season, and it remains to be seen how he'll hold up if given more snaps in 2012. He could push Coleman for his spot if he shows the ability to hold up week in and week out.

Keep an eye on: Crawford. The Cowboys' third-round pick in April's draft is likely a project player who will be groomed to be a pass-rush asset down the road. But there is talent there, and if he takes well to Rob Ryan's coaching and his system, he could be the kind of player who's deployed strategically in certain situations later in the year. The Cowboys would be thrilled if Crawford could make an impact for them in 2012, and while that's not really what he was drafted for, it's not completely out of the question given the opportunity he'll have if his learning curve is short.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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