Position Series: D-Line Could Use Upgrades

(Editor's Note: This is the fourth of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys' roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2012 season. Today we examine the defensive line.)

Pressing Matters:The Cowboys inked three defensive ends at the start of free agency last year, which just so happened to occur at the start of training camp when Rob Ryan was trying to install his new defense. Whether or not the signings of Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman made a big difference is debatable.

What can't be argued is the fact that the Cowboys need to get more production from the defensive front next year. Despite the play of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who is going back for his fourth straight trip, Dallas didn't have a consistent group of playmakers up front.

That's an area where the Cowboys can always look to upgrade. Last year, there were discussions about taking a defensive end such as Wisconsin's J.J. Watt or Cal's Cameron Jordan with the No. 9 overall pick, but the team instead opted for offensive line.

This year, it could make sense to beef up the inside with some younger players, either in the first or second round.

2011 Evaluation: With only three starters at the position, and one of them makes another Pro Bowl, it's hard to suggest a lack of production up front. Ratliff did have another stellar year, and a big improvement from last season when he had no tackles for loss. In 2011, Ratliff had just two sacks, but seven stops behind the line of scrimmage.

As for the backup nose tackle spot, Josh Brent suffered a knee injury late in the year that forced Ratliff into more playing time. Even Ratliff was slowed with a rib injury. Backup lineman Sean Lissemore was impressive in a limited role, providing constant pressure, especially in those games Brent sat out.

The defensive end position showed some improvement early in the year, when Hatcher displayed more pass-rushing skills than we'd seen from him in previous seasons. The new scheme seemed to benefit Hatcher well all year long as he finished with a career-high four sacks, after having only 7.5 in five seasons combined.

Coleman and Spears were solid at times, but it has always been a position that doesn't register a lot of stats because of the constant double-teams defensive ends face.

Need More From . . . : The Cowboys could stand to get more out of both starting defensive ends, which is why there has been talk of upgrading that spot through the draft or free agency, or possibly both.

There are two theories about 3-4 ends, one being that it's difficult for these position players to get a ton of production, which is why drafting them high or shelling out big bucks for free agents is considered a waste.

There is the flip side in which teams think there are special players who can play 3-4 ends, but you have to make sure and get one early in the draft.

The Cowboys have fallen much closer to the first school of thought as of late. Now they did draft Spears 20th overall in 2005, but that's the highest they have drafted a defensive end since they made the switch to that scheme.

Spears did have a more active season this year, but it's always a position in which the Cowboys could use more playmakers, especially to take the pressure off of Ratliff and, of course, DeMarcus Ware on the outside.

Upgrades Needed: The Cowboys haven't had a space-eating defensive tackle in a while, at least not one that contributed on a regular basis. While it's hard to complain with the production from Ratliff, a four-time Pro Bowler, there could be a strong need for some more size in the middle.

The only backup tackle on the roster is Josh Brent, who does have more size than Ratliff and played well in the middle on a limited basis. His knee injury late in the season hurt the Cowboys' depth, although Sean Lissemore played admirably and should expect to get more playing time. Still, a bigger-bodied tackle wouldn't hurt to have moving forward.

Position Analysis:

Jay Ratliff - Had an improved season in 2011. Seemed much more active, especially in the opposing backfield. Four straight Pro Bowls is impressive - at any position.

Marcus Spears - Like Ratliff, it seemed like he was around the ball more this year. However, just one sack and no tackles for loss leaves a lot to be desired.

Kenyon Coleman - Brought in mainly because of his familiarity with Ryan and the Browns scheme. He played well enough to start, but turning 33 in April, the Cowboys need more youth there.

Jason Hatcher - Rob Ryan said he liked Hatcher long before he took the DC job and it showed. It seemed like Hatcher excelled more in this scheme. He'll likely get more opportunities to flourish next year.

Josh Brent - The only prototype nose guard on the roster. The Cowboys missed him when he was out, but he may never have enough intangibles to be a full-time starter.

Sean Lissemore - The Cowboys might have found something in this seventh-round pick in 2010. Lissemore has a knack for making the most out of limited chances. Expect a bigger role in 2012.

Clifton Geathers - He's been with a lot of teams, and the Cowboys like his size. But that might be the 6-7, 320-pounder's best asset.

Robert Calloway - Did enough to stick around on the practice squad for most of the season. At 6-5, 312, he's got nose-tackle size. He needs a strong training camp to turn some heads.

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