Dallas Cowboys Defense: Is Defensive Line Really a Position of Strength?

Peter MatarazzoContributor IMay 8, 2013

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 09: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones looks on before the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on December 9, 2012 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the inner circles of the Dallas Cowboys, the defensive line is actually considered a strength. This is such the case that the position was completely bypassed in the draft and free agency. No Sharrif Floyd, no Sylvester Williams, no Margus Hunt and no trade up for Sheldon Richardson.

So what the Cowboys consider a strength, some, including myself, don't quite see it that way. The decision to pass on Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd pretty much opened the gates to a draftwide debate, and years from now, the Cowboys could be facing even more scrutiny. 

Passing on Floyd meant one thing and one thing only—that both Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli provided direct input on the decision to pass him up. It's otherwise known as Jerry Jones' draft process, one which other people set the table and Jerry makes the decisions.

I'm not suggesting that Floyd was the gateway to the NFL draft, but not selecting any defensive linemen at all was the real head-scratcher. I guess the brain trust didn't feel a unit that only amassed seven-and-a-half sacks last season was worth improving. 

So is this really a position of strength?

DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer certainly provide reasons for optimism at the defensive end positions, but the rest of the bunch needs a closer examination. Bear in mind that both of those players will be making the transition from linebackers in a 3-4 defense to their collegiate positions.

So let's look at the rest of the defensive line corps. After Ware and Spencer, the crux of the depth at defensive end really rests on the shoulders of second-year players Kyle Wilber and Tyrone Crawford. And there are question marks on both of those players.

Wilber will also be converting from linebacker to the end position, and Crawford needs to step up his game and impact after an up-and-down rookie year. Both players haven't proven anything in terms of production or dependability. Wilber was injured early on in 2012 and was mostly a special teams player, and Crawford saw his playing time gradually increase.

As third- and fourth-round picks, they both need to make their mark right now. When you examine the tackle position, the key here is none other than a healthy Jay Ratliff. Despite his advancing age and declining sack totals, there are a lot of reasons to believe he will return to his Pro Bowl form. 

Ratliff, as a natural 3-technique, really is tailor-made for Kiffin's scheme. His ability to play nose tackle as well as utilizing his quickness off the ball will allow him to attack the gaps and cause havoc. Joining Ratliff inside will be Jason Hatcher and his unique ability to consistently force pressure. 

The belief here is that Ratliff and Hatcher could be used interchangeably, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Josh Brent. But is Hatcher really a nose tackle in this defense? And wouldn't this represent yet another player needing to adapt to a transition? 

That could be the case as the Cowboys look for position flexibility, but why not just put round pegs in round holes. Now enter Sean Lissemore. Here is a player who really needs to prove something in a hurry. It's time to go from solid rotational player to consistent football player.

With the Cowboys having to face the likes of Alfred Morris, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson and a slew of other backs in 2013, they need to find out if he's part of the solution or part of the problem at stopping the run. The problem really lies in the fact that Lissemore hasn't provided enough clues about how he can help this team. 

The Cowboys might have found some potential help along the defensive line with the signing of Brian Price. Who exactly is he? He was Tampa Bay’s 2010 second-round pick who's been out of football and is trying to get a career back on track after injuries nearly derailed him.

But is that what this team is counting on? The Cowboys may not have much choice in the matter, but then again, this a strength position, right? So who's left that's worth noting? How about Rob Callaway? Ben Bass? Josh Brent?

Well, Callaway has spent more time on the practice squad versus the defensive huddle, Bass is a player who does show promise but is still an unknown at this point and Brent could be playing in the Texas penal league.

Suddenly this isn't looking like a position of strength, right? In my estimation, the Cowboys are an injury or two away from the brink of disaster. So let's recap this position for a second.

Ware is coming off surgery but will man one end with Spencer along with some unproven depth. Ratliff and Hatcher will patrol the middle of the line with Lissemore, Callaway and Price behind them. And Price and Bass basically round out the defensive line corps. 

The Cowboys may have come to a consensus that Floyd wasn't the right fit for their defensive scheme. Maybe it was his five-and-a-half sacks in college or maybe other teams passed on him for the same reasons the Cowboys did, but it still doesn't dismiss a need.

So while the Cowboys continue to see this as a strength, the answer as to whether this is true comes down to one factor—Jerry Jones' beliefs.