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Battles In The Trenches: Cowboys Athletic D-Linemen

Rob Ryan is best known for running a defense with exotic schemes and creating organized chaos pre-snap to confuse offenses and disguise coverage assignments and pressure packages. But for his imaginative and aggressive designs to work as intended, Ryan requires players that are versatile at their position. Linebackers that can rush the passer as well as they can drop back into coverage, safeties that can cover man-to-man but also stack the box against the run, physical corners that are also agile cover guys, and defensive-linemen the can play various positions in multiple fronts.

For this to be possible, it means that Rob Ryan must covet smart and athletic prospects, those that can learn and understand his defensive plans and have the physical talent to succeed in the various duties. One-trick ponies won't do. While Ryan got few new pieces prior to the 2011 season, in 2012 the Cowboys drafted mostly defensive prospects that were team-captains in college and had impressive physical measurables. We already took a look at the athleticism of the versatile safeties on the Cowboys roster. But when comparing the athletic markers of the Cowboys defensive-linemen with some of the most coveted prospects in recent years, it becomes clear this trend towards more versatile (and thus athletic) players is spreading throughout the defensive rosters.

There are obviously a variety of factors that influence draft positions of college prospects. College production, level of competition, interviews with coaches and players to ascertain character and football acumen, and NFL combine results are all vital in determining a prospects' potential. But as teams get further down their draft boards they must choose which of these variables are more important to their philosophy of team building. For the Jason Garrett and Rob Ryan led Cowboys, it appears character, football smarts and instincts, and athleticism are at the top of the list. Time and time again, the Cowboys have not shied away from using middle and late round draft picks on small school prospects that display these characteristics, opposed to drafting big school players with character issues or limited athleticism.

Many Cowboys fans have questioned the talent along the defensive-line and there has been plenty of criticism about the limited additions to this area of the roster. The only new lineman that saw considerable playing time in 2011 was veteran Kenyon Coleman and third-round pick Tyrone Crawford is the "highest value" addition the team has made along the d-line in the past two years. So what's the deal? Is the d-line better than many assume? Were problems elsewhere in more dire need of repair? Did Ryan see talent and potential in some young guys that fans rarely saw on game day?

I think the answer may be yes to all of the above. After the jump we'll compare the athleticism of Cowboys d-linemen to the likes of young stars like Ndamukong Suh and JJ Watt.

Now, Suh was drafted second overall in the 2010 draft and Watt was the eleventh pick in the 2011 draft. At first glance, it seems unfair to compare the nine Cowboys d-linemen to these two highly coveted players. The Cowboys have only one first-rounder along the d-line (20th pick) and the next highest are two third-rounders. And yet, athletically, the Cowboys d-linemen compare quite well to these two juggernauts. The reason I chose them as comparisons are because they have the athletic markers of blue-chip prospects and they are the type of versatile linemen that Ryan would covet.

I decided to compare Watt with the Cowboys "pass-rushers" and Suh with the Cowboys 300+ pounders. These are the players' rookie measurables recorded by NFLdraftscout.com.

Player HeightWeight 40 Dash Bench Vertical Broad 20Shuttle 3-Cone
N. Suh 6'4" - 307 5.03 32 35.5 8'09" 4.44 7.21
S. Lissemore 6'4" - 298 4.98 36 30 9'03" 4.52 7.57
C. Geathers 6'7" - 299 4.98 26 36 9'04" 4.72 7.20
M. Spears 6'4" - 307 5.05 23 31 NA 4.40 7.21
J. Brent 6'2" - 320 5.38 22 29 8'10" 4.74 7.71
R. Callaway 6'5" - 325 5.17 25 31 9'02" 4.84 7.72
*K. Coleman 6'5" - 284 4.97 32 NA NA NA NA
JJ Watt 6'5" - 290 4.81 34 37 10'0" 4.21 6.88
J. Ratliff 6'4" - 292 4.85 26 33.5 9'09" 4.23 7.35
J. Hatcher 6'6" - 284 4.82 28 35.5 9'05" 4.50 7.68
T. Crawford 6'4" - 275 4.78 28 33 9'05" 4.44 7.09

As you read these athletic markers, keep in mind what they are reflecting. In this case, 40 yard dash (top speed) is not of great importance. Bench reps coincide with upper body strength, vertical and broad jumps are a show of burst and lower-body strength, and the shuttle and 3-cone are displays of acceleration and agility. It is these final four columns that scouts usually point to when considering pass-rushing athleticism.

For the big guys, it appears Sean Lissemore, Clifton Geathers, and Marcus Spears show considerable similarities with the pass-rushing markers of Suh. What is even more impressive is that Geathers was a sixth round pick and Lissemore was a seventh round compensatory pick. Only Spears was drafted in the first round, but was the twentieth overall pick - compared to Suh who was the second pick in his draft. Understandably, as the weight of the players increases, the pass-rushing ability decreases. However, it should be noted that Josh Brent and Rob Callaway's measurables are actually better in virtually every category compared to 320+ lb rookie Michael Brockers who was drafted fourteenth overall in the 2012 draft.

As for the pass-rushers, let's begin with a caveat. JJ Watt was absolutely remarkable at the NFL combine. Athletically, he is DeMarcus Ware in Jay Ratliff's body. In fact, the only Cowboys player that beats Watt in all four "pass-rushing" categories is Ware...and not by much. However, Jay Ratliff (seventh round pick) and Tyrone Crawford (third-rounder) still display impressive athletic markers. While his rookie measurables suggest Jason Hatcher is not a natural pass-rusher, it would appear he was a good student all these years and it has helped him improve his technique and ability to get after the quarterback. It may surprise some people that with far fewer snaps Hatcher was not much worse than JJ Watt in 2012. While Watt played as a starter in all 16 games, Hatcher played 13 games (started only ten) and often rotated with other players. And yet, (per NFL.com) Watt finished with 56 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks, and Hatcher finished with 28 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks.

Now, I am not implying Suh and Watt wouldn't be great additions to the Cowboys roster (though I like one far more than the other). Nor do I consider combine and pro day measurables as the only indicators of potential success in the NFL; they are simply the easiest to compare. However, I do think this proves that the Cowboys have several talented players that are athletic enough to succeed in Ryan's intended multiplicity. The Cowboys could certainly bolster the d-line depth chart, but it appears there is far more potential than many have suggested. Personally, I think the d-line will once again provide solid play but be underrated by fans. I think Crawford is a great addition. I think this d-line was a large reason why the Cowboys 2011 defense ranked seventh (tied) in total sacks and eleventh (tied) in yards per rush. I am excited about the athletic defensive-linemen heading to the Cowboys 2012 training camp.

What do you think?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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