Given the Cowboys’ current salary cap situation, the move doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Some feel that Spears failed to live up to expectations as a former first-round selection in the 2005 NFL draft. Chosen as the second of two first-round selections that year by former head coach Bill Parcells, Spears was moved from his college position of defensive tackle at LSU to defensive end as Dallas made the official switch to the 3-4 alignment that same year.
But Spears moved to a position that historically doesn’t generate much in the way of statistics as outside linebackers tend to be the stars in this antiquated scheme. Further, the lack of a true space-eating nose guard kept Spears and his fellow defensive linemen playing the run much more than they ever got to pin their ears back and go after the quarterback—a real shame and the main reason that Dallas has changed its focus defensively.
Given the fact that the Cowboys are transitioning back to the 4-3 scheme, this decision begins to shape the direction that Dallas is likely to go early in the 2013 NFL draft coming in late April.
It’s hard to say what impact Spears would have had in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s version of the 4-3 defensive front. It’s also difficult to forget that Spears played the same system in college at LSU and that he was a highly regarded defensive lineman back in ‘05.
The Cowboys are not rich with proven defensive linemen at this stage of the game. While former nose guard Jay Ratliff figures to be a major presence in the same role he played in college at Auburn, only fellow defensive tackles Sean Lissemore and Jason Hatcher figure to have jobs in Kiffin’s defensive line rotation.
Other names like Ikponmwosa Igbinosun and Brian Price are either completely unproven or have question marks of their own.
The rest of Dallas’ defensive linemen currently on the roster are either defensive end prospects in this new system or are a better fit at nose guard in the old 3-4 scheme, like 6’5’’ and 325-pound Rob Calloway.
Losing an experienced player such as Spears certainly puts some focus on the defensive line heading into the draft this spring. But this has been the suspicion of numerous mock drafts for some time now and I expect that trend to continue.
Since the Cowboys spent the money and resources they did a year ago in acquiring cornerbacks and offensive guards, I believe that these positions are effectively eliminated from early consideration in the draft. The cross hairs seem to be narrowing in on defensive tackle and free safety, two positions known to be coveted by Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.
Since the positional value in the first round would favor an interior presence on a defensive line that's thinner than it was earlier this week, my thinking is that any of numerous defensive tackles from established 4-3 programs at the college level is what we’ll see chosen by Dallas wherever they end up choosing first.
So keep your eyes on players like Sharrif Floyd out of Florida, Sheldon Richardson of Missouri or even a surprising fall in the first round for top 10 prospect Star Lotulelei from Utah.
Free agency doesn't look to have the answers at this point.
The 2013 NFL draft is going to have to provide those.