The Cowboys Missing Piece: A Prototypical Nose Tackle?

Some fans believe that the Cowboys are truly one piece away from a Super Bowl. If that's the case, what is that piece? In this series, I will offer potential needs for the Cowboys, examine who might be able to fill them, and explain why this is the missing piece that will bring the Cowboys to the Super Bowl.

In football, size matters. On the defensive side of the ball, there is no bigger player than the 3-4 Nose Tackle. These thundering behemoths have the potential to wreak havoc throughout the season and disrupt entire game plans. Despite these facts, the Dallas Cowboys and Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan have elected to play season after season while starting the svelte, 287-pound Jay Ratliff at the position (Weight courtesy of Cowboys official roster). Although dangerous in his own right, the Cowboys can potentially gain upwards of 60 pounds on the defensive line through the addition of a prototypical Nose Tackle. This could be the missing piece.

What makes a great Nose Tackle?

Size:
A prototypical Nose Tackle is 6'2 or shorter, and weighs upwards of 325 pounds. The short stature helps to create a low center of gravity, while the bulk ensures that he will not be pushed backwards under any circumstance.

Strength:
Nose Tackles should possess more raw strength than any other position on the team. Elite strength transforms the immovable force into an irresistible one.

Mentality:
The Nose Tackle must have an attacking mentality. He has to be a tireless worker who doesn't mind doing the dirty jobs in the trenches.

Who will be the Cowboys' next Nose Tackle?

The Prospects

The Cowboys' next Nose Tackle will come from one of three places: the draft, free agency, or their own roster. First, let's explore the options in the draft:

Nose Tackle Prospects, 2012

Projected
Round
Rank:
CBS (Drafttek)
Name College Height Weight Bench Press Age at Start of
2012 Season
1 20 (28) Dontari Poe Memphis 6' 4" 346 lbs. 44 22
2-3 78 (79) Alameda Ta'amu Washington 6' 3" 348 lbs. 35 22
4 137 (70) Hebron Fangupo Brigham Young 6' 1" 323 lbs. 36 27
5 179 (153) Josh Chapman Alabama 6' 1" 315 lbs. -- 23
5-6 200 (148) Akiem Hicks Regina 6' 5" 325 lbs. 26 22
7 246 (171) Nicolas Jean-Baptiste Baylor 6' 2" 335 lbs. -- 23

As you've probably guessed, Green is Good and Red is Bad. But why is being projected as a first round pick bad? Easy: The Cowboys, if acquiring one of these players in the draft, will be expending a draft pick in order to do so. The lower the cost, the better for the Cowboys. For Nose Tackles, height is actually a disadvantage. It is critical for a Nose Tackle to get low, gain leverage, and power through Centers and, often, double-teaming Guards. Akiem Hicks will have a more difficult time getting low and staying low when compared to Fangupo and Chapman. Another fairly obvious statement: Size is Good. While Josh Chapman could reportedly bulk up, he is currently at a disadvantage when compared with the likes of Dontari Poe and Alameda Ta'amu. Raw strength, as measured in the bench press, is the critical asset to good Nose Tackle play. Dontari Poe holds a clear advantage in this category, and Akiem Hicks draws another red flag. Finally, age is an important consideration to make when drafting players (but don't tell the Eagles). If you hope for your draft choice to become a cornerstone of the franchise, it's helpful for him to crack the starting lineup before he's 30.

The Free Agents

How about the 2012 Free Agency Class? Surely, there are some Nose Tackles on the market. In fact, 6 notable Nose Tackles are available this year.

Free Agent Nose Tackles, 2012

2011 PFF
Grade
2011
Salary Cap Hit
Name Last Team
Height Weight Stuffs Age at Start of
2012 Season
30.0 $2,450,000 Sione Pouha
NYJ 6' 3" 325 lbs. 9 33
24.1 $1,285,000 Brodrick Bunkley
DEN 6' 2" 306 lbs. 18 28
4.0 $640,000 Antonio Garay
SD 6' 4" 320 lbs. 9 32
2.5 $12,381,000 Paul Soliai
MIA 6' 4" 355 lbs. 11 28
2.2 $4,000,000 Shaun Rogers
NO 6' 4" 350 lbs. 51 32
-1.4 $4,000,000 Aubrayo Franklin
NO 6' 1" 317 lbs. 15 32

These names have been parsed from PFF's ranking of the Top 10 Free Agent Interior Defensive Linemen. Much like this year's crop of Centers, the free agent Nose Tackles are primarily over 30. This can be a serious consideration, as Jason Garrett has been engineering a team-wide youth-movement over the last season-and-a-half. Still, two promising prospects are available at the tender young age of 28: the oft-discussed Paul Soliai, a Samoan Giant if there ever was one, and the smaller Brodrick Bunkley, whose dirty work allowed the Broncos to stay in games while Tim Tebow prepared his miracles. Bunkley offers an added bonus: he was cut by the Eagles last offseason, and may play exceptionally well against his former team. Ironically, the two youngest also represent the heaviest and lightest of the class. As these men are all well-past their combine performances, I've sampled strength by including their total career Stuffs (solo Tackles for Loss + solo Sacks), which appears to be a promising indicator. Also note that Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin both came from New Orleans, who employ a 4-3 front. This, PFF explains, could justify their stunning drop-off of production in 2011, and warrants their ranking in the top of the free agency class. Soliai's staggering salary was a result of the Dolphin's franchising him in 2011.

The Roster

The Cowboys currently employ a number of Defensive Tackles that may have the potential to add size to the position, allowing Jay Ratliff to slide to the outside (Ratliff included for comparison).

Cowboys Nose Tackles, 2012

2011 PFF
Grade
2012
Salary Cap Hit
Name Experience
Height Weight Stuffs Age at Start of
2012 Season
18.6 $4,916,042* Jay Ratliff
8 6' 4" 287 lbs. 22 31
13.8 $502,150 Sean Lissemore
3 6' 4" 306 lbs. 2 24
3.9 $501,875 Josh Brent
3 6' 2" 320 lbs. 0 24
** minimum Robert Calloway 2 6' 5" 312 lbs. ** 24

*Ratliff's salary cap figure under new contract. The extension reduced his cap hit from the previously scheduled $6,475,000, effectively creating $1.5M in cap space.
**Calloway did not play at all in 2011, and therefore has no PFF Grade, and no opportunity for Stuffs.

It doesn't take much effort to realize that Jay Ratliff is not a prototypical Nose Tackle. He's a bit too tall and a bit too small to be identified as such. Sean Lissemore, while productive, appears to have a brighter future at Defensive End (and Kick Returner!), being similarly sized to Ratliff (taller and leaner). Robert Calloway is a practice squad player, and is also sized nicely for a 5-technique End more so than Nose Tackle. This leaves Josh Brent, who logged a 3.9 grade in limited snaps. Although he did not register any stuffs, PFF recognized him as a good run defender and above average pass-rusher. Being of almost ideal size, only 24 years old, and making a mere $500k per year, Josh Brent may be a player to watch for at Nose Tackle in 2012.

How will a Nose Tackle benefit the Cowboys?

Jay Ratliff has given the Cowboys a lot of production from the 1- and 0-technique since becoming a full-time player in 2006.That said, his production has come while knifing through the A- and B-gaps and disrupting plays in the backfield. While impressive to watch, this style of play causes problems for the Cowboys schematically. Well-respected 3-4 Coordinator Dick LeBeau explains, in this 2009 interview with ESPN's Greg Garber, that

"[the Nose Tackle's] job...is to disrupt the flow of the play. If two guys have to block one, that means somebody should be free someplace."

When Ratliff penetrates, his intention is to escape from the two linemen trying to block him. If successful, Ratliff enters the backfield, but two offensive linemen are now free to attack the second level of the defense. Ratliff is not, in fact, freeing up anyone, but rather attempting to free himself. This difference in strategy causes the Inside Linebackers to stay closer to the line of scrimmage, as they must provide run support in the event the Nose Tackle penetrates the wrong hole (any Gap the Running Back isn't headed to). As you may have guessed, this penetrating style is commonly employed by 4-3 teams, as the second Defensive Tackle allows for more thorough Gap Coverage--both penetrating the line. The 3-4 Nose Tackle should instead attack the body of the Center, and be prepared to shed him in order to tackle the Running Back in either A-Gap. This style of play frees the Inside Linebackers to drop into coverage without fear of being gashed in the running game.

This confidence gained by the Inside Linebackers spreads to the rest of the defense. Safeties can play deeper, knowing the ILBs won't be beaten on quick routes. Corners can play more aggressive press coverage, with confidence that the Safeties will be providing help over the top. The Outside Linebackers and Defensive Ends will be facing manageable opposition (on one side, a Tackle and Guard--the other, a Tackle alone), all but guaranteeing quick pressure on the Quarterback.

If there's one thing that the Cowboys' Defense could have used, it's confidence that their teammates will execute their responsibilities. A prototypical Nose Tackle may be the Missing Piece that sets the dominoes in motion, leading the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl.

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