With training camp right around the corner, DallasCowboys.com is taking a look at the outlook of each position group for the home team in a seven-part series, continuing Friday with the defensive line position.
Big Issue: There are some question marks here on the defensive line at both end and nose tackle and how the playing time will shake out. But possibly the biggest issue from this group will be the emergence of Jason Hatcher. Coming out of minicamp, Hatcher arguably had the best set of practices among any defensive player. He was as active as one could be in non-contact drills and his coaches and teammates believe he's primed for a breakthrough season. That's what the Cowboys need from Hatcher, who has been more of a role player and rotation end during his career. But he asked DL coach Brian Baker to promise him a year ago that he'd be the starter if he was clearly the best coming out of camp. Hatcher was the best, got the starting job and played well last year when healthy. Now the question is, can he take it to another level?
Scouting Department:In my view, the defensive line has the least amount of questions going into to camp, unlike offensive line or wide receiver. I know there are those of you that don't believe what I just said, but it's true. If Jason Hatcher starts at right defensive end with Sean Lissemore and rookie Tyrone Crawford as the backups, it's a good rotation. If Kenyon Coleman, Marcus Spears and Clifton Geathers work on the left side again, it's a good rotation. At nose, Jay Ratliff will once again be your starter but there will be an interesting battle at the backup spot with Josh Brent and Robert Callaway trying to win that job. I really liked what I saw from Geathers and Callaway in the minicamps so we will see if they can carry that over into training camp. Callaway also showed me some ability when I studied him in the preseason for the Detroit Lions last year. There is some position flexibility with Lissemore jumping inside to take some reps at nose. He will most likely be paired inside with Ratliff when Rob Ryan goes to his four-man nickel front as a rusher with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. I think there is a pretty good shot that we could see Lissemore as a starter on that open side next to Ware. It will be the job of these defensive linemen to keep blockers off the linebackers to allow them to run and make stops. *– Bryan Broaddus *
Rookie Watch:All eyes will likely be fixed on rookie Tyrone Crawford, a third-round pick from Boise State. Crawford (6-4, 282) didn't do much this summer because of a quad injury he sustained early in the OTA practices. The club has Crawford pegged as a high-motor, ultra-intense defensive player who should be able to contribute in spot duty this year. His progress and development might be a big factor in the Cowboys' decisions to keep a couple of veterans at defensive end in Spears and Coleman.
Don't Forget About …This isn't a spot where people are forgetting anyone. Even the likes of Calloway and Brent are being discussed as possible backups. So maybe a guy like Baraka Atkins is a good fit for this space. Atkins, a three-year veteran who hasn't had game-action since 2008 because of injuries, can be a solid pass-rusher if given the opportunity. The Cowboys have some younger guys that will be in the rotation, but Atkins showed a little promise in the summer practices. He needs to carry that on with him to training camp.* *
Jay Ratliff – Has been slowed somewhat by injuries lately, including a foot issue that kept him out all summer. But Ratliff has made the Pro Bowl four straight years and vows to be ready for the start of camp.
Jason Hatcher – Maybe this is the year Hatcher finally breaks out. He didn't seem to be a great fit in previous schemes but had his most productive season last year, despite injuries.
Kenyon Coleman – There has been speculation Coleman might not be around this year, but the Cowboys aren't exactly hurting for cap space at the moment. If they decide a veteran player is out there, then Coleman could be expensed. But it means younger players at DE must fill the role.
Marcus Spears – Ditto from Coleman. Spears doesn't cost as much as Coleman on the cap, but some might argue he's not as productive. With both players likely here for the start of camp, there's no telling how this might shake out.
Josh Brent – Entering his third year, time is running out for him to prove himself. Brent was a productive rookie out of nowhere in 2010 then suffered some injuries last year. But he'll have a position fight with Robert Calloway to back up Ratliff.
Sean Lissemore – Possibly the wild card to this position. If he emerges like the Cowboys are hoping, it would give the team added flexibility because he can play two spots. His career so far is reminiscent of Ratliff, which could be a great indication of things to come.
Clifton Geathers – Like Lissemore, Geathers is on the upswing. The Cowboys kept him last year even though they had enough depth at DE. With tremendous size, look for him to get added playing time this year.
Robert Calloway – He needs to beat out Brent for the backup NT job. He's got strength and had a full year on the practice squad last year.
Tyrone Crawford – Third-round pick from Boise State who missed most of the summer with a quad injury. He won't be asked to start but his fast-motor needs to be cranked to the fullest when his number is called.
Baraka Atkins – Veteran journeyman who hasn't played much football in the last three years. He's got pass-rush ability but is fighting an uphill battle in the numbers game.
Ben Bass – Starting out as a body to fill out the rookie minicamp, he showed enough to get signed to the roster. Sticking around now won't be easy, but he could be a quality practice-squad candidate.