Ellis: 49ers ILBs Have More Help Up Front

IRVING, Texas -Jerry Jones made some headlines from the Senior Bowl during an appearance on the NFL Network on Wednesday. The Cowboys owner said he would love to be able to compare Sean Lee and Bruce Carter to San Francisco's great pair of 3-4 inside linebackers.

Jones on Monday had raved about the two defenses that met in the NFC Championship.

"We all watched (NaVorro) Bowman, we watched (Patrick) Willis out there, and boy did those guys make a difference," Jones said. "Now, those guys and our Sean Lee and Carter - this is my dream - those guys out there from sideline to sideline."

Willis has been in a class of his own since he arrived in the NFL, and Bowman may be getting there. He was a first-team All-Pro this year, only his second season after the 49ers made him their third-round pick in the 2010 draft.

The Cowboys picked Lee, his college teammate, ahead of Bowman last year. Carter was projected as a first-round pick until he tore his ACL late in the 2010 season, but the Cowboys picked him in the second round and essentially gave him a redshirt year. He played almost entirely on special teams.

Lee and Carter are no doubt talented in their own right, but that doesn't mean they'll work as well together as Willis and Bowman.

"Not exactly the prototype for the makeup of the two guys you'd want in the middle," Jones said. "You might want more of a thumper, a big guy to go along with Sean Lee - but if we can keep both those guys out there, adjust our defense, we might be going toward Willis and Bowman, like they have in San Francisco."

What fans have to hope that Jones and the Cowboys front office will understand is that Willis and Bowman don't succeed in a vacuum. Inside linebackers need help from the defensive line, keeping offensive linemen off of them and making messes that they can run through to get to the ball.

San Francisco's three-man front does this as well as any in the league, which certainly helps Willis and Bowman make the plays that they do.

Defensive end Justin Smith is an All-Pro in his own right, and is far more than the slug we've come to expect 3-4 ends to be from watching the Cowboys. The 49ers' other defensive linemen can play, too, though not as well known. End Ray McDonald and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga each earned five-year, $20 million contracts last offseason. Sopoaga is the classic sloppy nose tackle, listed at 6-2, 330 pounds.

They can both play, and the 49ers weren't afraid to make the investment to keep them.

Think of McDonald as San Francisco's version of Stephen Bowen, who the Cowboys let get away last offseason, on a five-year, $27.5 million deal. Though he had never started before 2011, the 49ers kept their guy, and he became a dependable starter. In Washington, Bowen blossomed into a very productive 3-4 lineman, producing 41 tackles and 6.0 sacks.

Instead of keeping Bowen, the Cowboys held onto the cheaper Marcus Spears, at five years and $19.2 million and Jason Hatcher (three years, $6 million), and brought in Kenyon Coleman (two years, $3.5 million). Though he was their highest paid end, Spears did not start. Hatcher had a pretty nice season in his first year as a starter, though.

Nose tackle Jay Ratliff got a five-year, $40 million extension last summer, so it's not that the Cowboys are necessarily getting cheap on the defensive line, but their commitment to it is questionable. Since 2005, the year they flipped to the 3-4, the Cowboys have only picked four defensive linemen in the draft. Hatcher was the highest of those picks, a third-round project from Grambling in 2006. The only others were Montavious Stanley (sixth round, 2006), Sean Lissemore (seventh round, 2010) and Josh Brent (supplemental seventh-rounder, 2010).

In the meantime, quality linemen like Bowen and Chris Canty have gotten away.

It's a roundabout way of saying that until and unless the Cowboys put more effort into improving their front, Lee and Carter will never make the kind of impact that Willis and Bowman do, and the defense as a whole won't reach its potential. For whatever reason, the Cowboys haven't valued the line since Bill Parcells left.

That has to change. After two years of diminished statistical production and late-season wear and tear from the beating he takes in the middle, it's beyond time for Ratliff to move to end. He can still be every bit as disruptive in his early 30s as Smith, who has the same kind of build.

Spears and Hatcher can play in a rotation on the other end and with Ratliff, but neither of them should stop the Cowboys from looking for an upgrade at end.

As for nose tackle, the Cowboys need their Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton or B.J. Raji - a guy who takes up two blockers every play and won't move. Josh Brent has shown promise, but this will mean a premium draft pick at the position. It may not seem like a great need because of Ratliff's past success, but it's easily a better use of a first-rounder than cornerback, and arguably outside linebacker.

San Francisco's an example of one team that gets it done on defense with only one great edge rusher, Aldon Smith. Nothing special about Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson, their other outside linebackers. Yet the 49ers have a very good pass rush because of how good their 3-4 front plays. 

The pass rush makes even average secondary players look better. For the 49ers it's guys like Carlos Rogers, DaShon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who anybody could've had last year. Yet Rogers and Goldson got only one-year deals, respectively, and Whitner got a modest three-year, $11.75 million contract.

The Cowboys have money to spend in free agency, high draft picks and clear needs. They, like San Francisco, should be able to put together a very good defense in one offseason.

If the Cowboys get help up front, then Lee and Carter might look a lot like Willis and Bowman after all. That's something to dream on.

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