Dallas Cowboys 2011 NFL Draft: How Defensive Line Grades Affect Draft Prep

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Dallas Cowboys 2011 NFL Draft: How Defensive Line Grades Affect Draft Prep
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Grading defensive linemen is difficult due to the variety of roles that each player can fill. The statistics among players at other positions are generally comparable due to the equality of their on-field duties. For example, whether the Cowboys have Alan Ball or Akwasi Owusu-Ansah in the game at free safety, their duties will likely be the same.

The rotation that is employed amongst defensive linemen, however, creates more situational roles for each player. Defensive ends Igor Olshanksy and Marcus Spears, for example, are on the field a lot more during run downs than pass downs. Thus, their statistics are not necessarily 100 percent compatible with those of Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen.

To combat this potential problem, we will weight each player’s overall grade to more properly reflect their personal contributions and duties. The run and pass defense grades for both nose tackles (Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent) will be weighted equally in determining their final grades. For defensive ends Spears and Olshansky, it will be 3:2 run-to-pass, and for Hatcher and Bowen it will be 3:2 pass-to-run.

As always, the charts below display the best statistics within a particular group circled in blue, and the worst in red.

Grades

Nose Tackles

  • Jay Ratliff

Run Defense:  C+

Ratliff has always been “out of position” as a 3-4 nose tackle, but he’s been able to use his athleticism to overcome his limitations in the past. This season, Ratliff simply appeared worn down, particularly in the run game. He recorded a slightly lower tackle rate than in ’09, but more importantly, he got blown off the ball at times. Even though he’s undersized, that didn’t happen on a consistent basis before 2010.

Pass Defense:  B

Although Ratliff tallied more pressures this season than in 2009, his sack and quarterback hit rates were down. The numbers seem to line up with what we saw in games, as Ratliff, at times, disappeared.

  • Josh Brent

Run Defense:  C

Over the second half of the season, I’ve been arguing that Brent’s impact on the Cowboys wasn’t as great as it seemed in 2010. Brent certainly seems like great value as a supplemental seventh-rounder, but his low price also brought with it low expectations. When Brent exceeded those expectations by garnering significant playing time (only one less snap than Jason Hatcher), everyone’s natural reaction was to sensationalize his performance. If he was a high-round draft pick, however, we’d be calling him a bust.

Brent’s tackle rate of 5.5 percent was actually worse than that of former Cowboy Junior Siavii in 2009. He did make some plays, but certainly not more than we’d expect from a player who received 256 snaps on the season.

Pass Defense:  D-

Despite playing on the nickel defense often, Brent could only muster a single quarterback hit and three pressures on the season. Without much pressure inside, it was easier for opposing offensive lines to focus on containing the outside linebackers.

Defensive Ends

  • Marcus Spears

Run Defense:  B-

At times, Spears seemed like the only defensive lineman on the team who was capable of stopping the run. His injuries were a big reason the Cowboys got gashed on the ground throughout the season. Spears’ tackle rate of 6.1 percent topped that of last season.

Pass Defense:  D-

Spears’ inability to rush the passer is why the ‘Boys are going to have to let him go this season. He recorded zero sacks, one quarterback hit, and one pressure in 263 snaps. His absence from the lineup on passing downs is still no excuse for that sort of lack of production.

  • Stephen Bowen

Run Defense:  C-

Bowen appeared to disregard the running game at times this season in favor of getting a jump to reach the quarterback. He tallied only 16 tackles on the season and didn’t do much to help the linebackers make tackles.

Pass Defense: C+

Bowen’s 27 quarterback pressures are impressive, but he still notched only two sacks on the year. Actually, his sack and hit rates were both cut nearly in half from 2009 to 2010.

Snaps: Spears-263, Bowen-552, Olshansky-574, Hatcher-257

  • Igor Olshansky

Run Defense:  C

You wouldn’t know it from all of his celebrations, but Olshansky took a big step backwards in 2010. His tackle rate was way down from 2009 and he simply wasn’t in on a lot of plays. Olshansky’s average play against the run means this “run-stuffing specialist” needs to be out of Dallas next season.

Pass Defense:  D-

Olshansky was never incredible as a pass-rusher, but his inability to generate any sort of pressure makes it way too easy for the opposition to pass on first down. Zero sacks in 574 snaps is debilitating to a defense.

  • Jason Hatcher

Run Defense:  C

I predicted big things for Hatcher in 2010, but he never really delivered. He didn’t receive the number of snaps I expected (only 257), but I still thought I’d see a bigger improvement. He did improve against the run, but not enough to give him a solid grade.

Pass Defense:  C

Hatcher’s hit and pressure rates worsened from 2009. With the exception of a play here and there, his presence on defense went largely unnoticed.

Final Defensive Line Grades

1.  Jay Ratliff:  B- (81.0)

  • 2009 Grade: B+ (87.0)

2.  Stephen Bowen: C (75.4)

  • 2009 Grade: C+ (79.8)

T3.  Jason Hatcher: C (75.0)

  • 2009 Grade: B- (80.2)

T3.  Marcus Spears: C (75.0)

  • 2009 Grade: B- (80.2)

5.  Igor Olshansky:  C- (70.2)

  • 2009 Grade: B (85.0)

6.  Josh Brent: D+ (69.0)

  • 2009 Grade: None

Conclusions and 2011 Draft Analysis

The Cowboys’ defensive line is likely going to see an overhaul this offseason. Jay Ratliff is the only certainty for the 2011 roster, with Josh Brent probable to make it as well. No current defensive end is safe, although it is unlikely the team would drop all four guys. Spears and Olshansky’s days appear numbered.  

I’d expect either Bowen or Hatcher to be back this season, although re-signing both guys isn’t out of the question. Either way, the Cowboys need to see gigantic improvements from their defensive line if they want to return to the playoffs in 2011.

One way to do that is to address the defensive end position in the first round. Alabama's Marcell Dareus appears unlikely at this point, so the most probably solutions are Wisconsin's J.J. Watt or Cal's Cameron Jordan. The Cowboys could likely trade down and still secure one of those players, allowing the team to move back up from their 40th overall selection to acquire an instant-impact offensive tackle. 

Without this move down, however, the ability to bypass an offensive tackle, such as USC's Tyron Smith, becomes very difficult. There figures to be quality 3-4 ends available in the second round, but the same cannot be said for offensive tackle.

Personally, I think the Cowboys would benefit most from a hybrid of the two strategiestrading down, but still selecting an offensive tackle. They covet Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, who will almost certainly be available in the mid-teens.  

The extra ammunition they get would allow them to move back into the first round to select a player like Baylor's Phil Taylor. Taylor is a nose tackle, but I think he would upgrade the defensive line more than any other player.  

The reason is that current nose tackle Jay Ratliff could then move to defensive end. With Rob Ryan's two-gap 3-4 scheme, Ratliff is a bit small to be playing nose. Thus, Taylor's addition would upgrade both nose tackle and defensive end, as opposed to selecting a player like Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward, who would simply upgrade the latter position. 

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