Our very own rabblerousr penned a very good article the other day and presented the argument of whether running back DeMarco Murray was the most "overrated" member of the Dallas Cowboys. After being motivated from his controversy, I decided to take a look at the other side of the spectrum.
A strong case could be made for various players on this team. One strong consideration was Dan Bailey, but a kicker isn't very exciting is it? Another player who I almost went to bat for again was Dwayne Harris, but the depth at wide receiver pushed me into another direction. That led me to the defensive side of the ball, where along the defensive line one veteran has seen an upward trajectory the past few years.
Defensive lineman Jason Hatcher has gone from a developmental third-round draft pick who was just a rotational player most of his career, but he has turned the corner and became a starting caliber player in the NFL.
While playing mainly five-technique defensive end in the base 3-4 defense, Hatcher was a player hand-picked by Bill Parcells and had only started one game prior to the 2011 season. When the Cowboys needed to make a financial decision on the up-and-coming Stephen Bowen, they opted to let him walk and re-sign the "underachieving" Hatcher. After not seeing much interest on the free agent market, he returned to the team that drafted him with a chip on his shoulder.
This also happened to the same year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan came to Dallas and inherited a defensive unit that didn't exactly have a lot of excitement at the defensive end position at the time. After going from a reserve player who never lived up to his draft status and expectations, Hatcher began to turn the corner and finally became the type of player the organization spent a mid-round pick on back in 2006.
In an interview with Rowan Kavner of the mothership, Hatcher talked about his overall game trending upwards the past few seasons.
"My game is definitely going up," Hatcher said. "You could tell the last two years I’ve been a starter. I don’t have a lot of miles on my body. I didn’t get a lot of reps my first five years. We aren’t going to get into that, but I’m just happy to be a starter now."
When in the same interview with Kavner, he was also asked how he began to become a more complete player.
"I worked myself into that guy that can play first, second and third down. When I first came in the league, the only thing I could do was rush the passer. Now they’re saying I’m a run stopper. It’s the more you can do, man. I’m not a situational guy anymore. I’m a starter in this league. Either I start, or else."
Hatcher only has 16 career sacks in seven seasons, but 8.5 of those sacks have come in the last two seasons in the 26 games he played as a starter at defensive end. Not only did his pass rushing production rise, his run defense also improved. Especially considering the type of defense he played in, Hatcher needed to improve against the ground game if he was ever going to grow into a complete player.
Last season, he graded out +10.1 as a pass rusher, but his run defense gave him a +17.5 rating on Pro Football Focus. Outside of Anthony Spencer's +23.0 rating, Hatcher was the highest rated Cowboy on that system of grading (+25.7). When assembling a list of performance based players who were undervalued, Hatcher raked in as the number one player on Nathan Jahnke's article on Pro Football Focus.
Over the past few years Hatcher has been an asset to the Cowboys’ interior line, but in 2012 he stepped his game up to a new level. Someone who just looks at sacks for defensive linemen wouldn’t notice it, as he had five in both 2011 and 2012, but he more than doubled his amount of hurries from 14 to 29, and did the same with his run stops from 11 to 24. While he isn’t quiet in the same conversation with J.J. Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson, he is definitely in the next tier.
For the record, Pro Football Focus also rates Hatcher favorable over Bowen, so the Cowboys appear to have made the right decision between the two. At the time, it looked like a big mistake, but the front office took a leap of faith and their gamble has paid off.
He will turn 31 years old later this month, but this is one of our most important players on the team. His contributions the past two seasons have been invaluable to our defensive line. If he can keep away the Father Time of football, then Hatcher will have another productive season, but this underrated Cowboy deserves to get more recognition.