Cowboys sign Ratliff to five-year, $20.5 million extension

The Dallas Cowboys on Friday signed starting nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who took over the position when veteran Jason Ferguson was injured in the opening game of the year, to a five-year contract extension.

The deal, first reported by The Dallas Morning News and confirmed for ESPN.com by league sources, is worth $20.5 million and includes $8 million in bonuses.

A three-year veteran, Ratliff spent his first two seasons rotating between end and tackle in the Cowboys' 3-4 front. He moved to tackle full-time this year and assumed the No. 1 spot on the nose tackle depth chart when Ferguson suffered a ruptured biceps tendon in the first game of the season.

Considered by many to be too small to play nose tackle and not regarded as the traditional two-gap style defender typically associated with the position, Ratliff has nonetheless performed well in 2007. The 3-4 system designed by first-year head coach Wade Phillips relies more on quickness and technique than most three-man fronts, and Ratliff has flourished as the starter.

In 13 games, including 12 starts, Ratliff, 26, has 24 tackles, two sacks and four passes defensed.

The former Auburn standout was a seventh-round pick in the 2005 draft and was playing this season for the third-year minimum base salary of $435,000.

This was the final year of Ratliff's original rookie contract, and he would have been eligible for restricted free agency in the spring without the extension. Rather than just wait until March and make Ratliff a qualifying offer that would have granted the team a right of first refusal, Dallas officials decided he was an important part of the club's future and negotiated the long-term extension instead.

For his career, Ratliff has appeared in 32 games and has 46 tackles, 6 sacks and one forced fumble.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.