[This article is one of eight in B/R contributor Jack Harver's "State of the DTs" series, introduced here.]
At 6'4" and 295 pounds, Dallas' nose tackle Jay Ratliff is too svelte to fit the stereotypical mold for his position in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense.
Current Dolphins' nose tackle Jason Ferguson, whose torn biceps as a Cowboy at the start of the 2007 season gave Ratliff his first starting gig, is shorter (6'3"), and, at 305 pounds, a good bit squatter.
Casey Hampton, whose Steelers run an attacking 3-4 defense similar to the Cowboys, plays at 325 pounds, and looks like he's yet to digest a beach ball.
Yet Ratliff manages to bang heads in the trenches with the best at his position. He fought through the trash for 7.5 sacks and a starting spot in the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter last year.
"The main thing is I've learned how to keep fat off and I've really benefited, as far as my endurance," he told NFL.com's Steve Wyche.
Keeping fat off is a novel concept at a position where most starters are built like tubby boulders to hold up against double-team blocks. Ratliff looks more like a 3-4 end: tall and solid, built to take on opposing tackles—the best athletes on the offensive line, one-on-one.
And yet he thrives against guards and centers built to move those big 'uns in spaces designed to present small gaps and pit bulk strength on strength.
Ratliff, who started his college career at Auburn as a tight end, uses his athleticism, grinding demeanor, and technical discipline to outwork opposing linemen.
That "nose to the grindstone" reputation made Ratliff the perfect candidate for the Pro Bowl this past season in a down year for NFC defensive tackles.
Chicago's Tommie Harris, who had a streak of three consecutive Pro Bowl trips, had a so-so season as the Bears' defense slipped a bit from the ranks of the elite. Kris Jenkins and Shaun Rogers left NFC teams to have Pro Bowl seasons in the AFC.
Ratliff, of course, had a career year statistically. His 7.5 sacks were far and away the most by a nose tackle last season (three ahead of Shaun Rogers' 4.5, the second-most), and close to the eight put up by Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth and Minnesota's Kevin Williams, two perennial Pro Bowlers.
Good numbers always help win voters.
Oddly enough, the same workman-like mentality that Ratliff used to fight through offensive lines to sacks and Pro Bowl recognition might keep him out of a repeat selection.
"The first thing I did was forget about last season," Ratliff said. "The Pro Bowl was a reward for last season. After that game was over, I put it behind me. I'm back to being a regular guy."
"[We need to] be a team more than anything," he said when asked about his aims for the Cowboys' upcoming season. "That's my goal. I'm going to go out and work hard to produce, but I'm not going to make it about me."
If keeping his head down, and doing work means drawing blockers away from Dallas' pass rushers instead of getting sacks—and, with veteran lineman Chris Canty gone in free agency, it might—Ratliff won't complain.
But with Haynesworth moving to the NFC, and Arizona's Darnell Dockett building a big-play reputation, Ratliff might be unsung once again after this year's Pro Bowl votes are tallied.