- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is the seventh installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at the defensive line.
Players: NT Jay Ratliff (signed through 2017), DE Jason Hatcher (signed through 2013), DE Marcus Spears (signed through 2014), DE Kenyon Coleman (signed through 2012), NT/DE Sean Lissemore (signed through 2013), NT Josh Brent (signed through 2013), DE Clifton Geathers (exclusive rights free agent), NT/DE Robert Callaway (signed futures contract)
2011 review: The defensive line performed respectably against the run for the most part. However, it left a lot to be desired in the pass-rushing department. The Cowboys’ defensive line combined for only 10.5 sacks, led by Hatcher (4.5). Ratliff made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance despite his sacks total declining for the fourth consecutive year. He finished the season with two sacks, tied with reserve Lissemore for second among the team’s defensive linemen. Coleman and Spears were solid against the run but nonfactors against the pass, which is particularly a problem with a secondary as vulnerable as the Cowboys'.
Offseason preview: The Cowboys need more playmaking at this position. Maybe they get that by moving Ratliff to defensive end, a subject that gets discussed every offseason but has not been seriously considered since he established himself as the starting nose tackle. Coples and Brockers, the best 3-4 defensive end prospects in the draft, are likely to be gone by the time the Cowboys get on the clock with the 14th overall pick. Arizona’s Campbell, who dominated Doug Free when the Cowboys played the Cardinals this season, would be a major upgrade in free agency. However, there’s a decent chance that the Cardinals will use the franchise tag to prevent one of the NFL’s best 3-4 ends from testing the open market this offseason.
Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: When the Cowboys played well on defense last season it was usually because the defensive line was handling the run and getting pressure on the quarterback. When things were going badly, I could usually tell on tape it was because the line wasn't getting off blocks and struggling with the pressure. The biggest problem I had with the line was at defensive end. The team lost Stephen Bowen to the Redskins and in my view, that was a tough blow for the defense. The club brought back Spears and Hatcher but also signed Coleman. Hatcher moved into Bowen's role with Spears and Coleman as the starters. As the season wore on, Coleman wore down and his play hurt the defense. Spears was up and down as well. Where there is a need of an upgrade would be at end. I am a big fan of Lissemore and I would not be surprised to see him in the starting lineup next season for Coleman or at nose if Ratliff shifts to end. Speaking of nose, Ratliff made the Pro Bowl which surprised me. I like Ratliff and respect the way he played, but there were times where he was clearly better than the centers that he was playing against and he didnt always take advantage of the matchup. Ratliff doesn't always face double teams. Where Ratliff struggles the most is when he gets wore down. That's why guys like Brent and Lissemore are key to keeping him as fresh as possible. I like the nose men on this team but the front office needs to find some upgrades at end to give the defense a chance.
Need meter (0-5): 3