IRVING, Texas – As the 2012 season ended and the focus turned to 2013, the defensive line was a position that I really felt was going to need some attention this offseason. Regardless of the scheme change from a 3-4 to 4-3, I targeted this as an area of concern. Not so much for the level of play but the age and injury history that was beginning to show. When this group was healthy it had a chance, but with Jay Ratliff and Kenyon Coleman out of the lineup and the unfortunate accident by Josh Brent, this group was really put to the test.
The positive side was you did see development from rookie Tyrone Crawford. He was able to carry things over from his days at Boise State to his work on this front. Credit the work of defensive line coach Brian Baker, who very early in Oxnard was hammering on him technique wise. Crawford showed some nice flexibility lining up both inside at tackle in the nickel but playing some end as well. In this 4-3 scheme, look for him to play as the left defensive end if the club is unable to resign Anthony Spencer. There is some explosiveness to his game and the ability to get up the field.
Jason Hatcher was another player that showed flashes of some solid play as a defensive end on the backside. He'll most likely play in the new scheme inside as the three-technique tackle. Hatcher is one of those down linemen that you can use in games because of his quickness and athletic ability. Where he has a chance to flourish is when he can line up on the outside shoulder of the guard and just attack that one gap. Sean Lissemore will also see more of a role as an inside player as well, but this should be comfortable for him because despite playing as a defensive end, he was able to fill in at nose while Ratliff and Brent were out. I thought that he played the position better in the latter part of 2011 than he did in 2012, but the role of that heavy one technique could be a good situation for him. This is a position to watch in the draft. They could draft a player for that role, and he could come off the bench where he has had more success.
I mentioned the loss of Ratliff and Coleman and how it affected this team scheme wise in the 3-4 but in this 4-3 I could see Ratliff playing either the one- or the three-technique because of his ability to take on blocks, and more importantly his ability to attack the gap and be disruptive. Ratliff's strength has always been his ability to get up the field in the nickel when he had to deal with one-on-one blocks. But to do all these things I have mentioned, he has to find a way to stay healthy throughout the whole season. Coleman is really in the same boat, plus he's an unrestricted free agent, so will the club find the funds to bring him back a 33-year-old defensive lineman? When he was on the field, this defense did a much better job of playing run defense but he has ended up on injured reserve half way through the season. Coleman can be a good point of attack player and in this defense has a chance to play that one technique, trying to take up blockers allowing Sean Lee to run to the ball.
Marcus Spears will be 30 years old when the season opens, and he's battled his way through several campaigns. Spears doesn't move as well as he once did but if he is in the mix, it would be in that one technique spot. Rookie Ben Bass showed some nice promise in training camp and earned a spot on the 53-man roster before the game in Philadelphia, but went on injured reserve a month later with an ankle injury. He could benefit with this scheme change. Bass is very similar to Crawford in the way he plays with a non-stop motor. This offseason will be critical as he looks to gain strength. A name to keep an eye on is Brian Price, who was a second round selection by the Buccaneers in 2010. The pro scouts signed him as a reserve/future this offseason and with how that group has been able to grab players off the street the last two seasons, he might have a chance.
In my early work on the 2013 NFL Draft, if the Cowboys are interested in adding some quality pieces to this front, the players are there both inside and outside. Last season their two 10 players were Fletcher Cox and Michael Brockers, so as this process begins we will see who they have in mind this spring. Regardless, it's a group that I feel will need to be addressed and this draft will give them that opportunity to help themselves.