This is the 10th installment of a series of articles evaluating the Dallas Cowboys current roster in anticipation of the April draft. This evaluation deals with the defensive end position.
DEFENSE: Part IX NT
The Cowboys have five defensive ends listed on their roster.
Starters – Chris Canty, Marcus Spears
Chris Canty is a physical specimen that would seem to have all the tools needed for a defensive end in a 3-4 defense. At 6-7 and 300 lbs., with excellent athleticism, Canty was expected to be a force for the Cowboys after he was drafted in the 4th round two years ago. Up until this point, reality hasn’t met expectations. Canty was solid against the run as the starter last year but was unable to consistently apply pressure to the QB in the pass rush. In mid-season, former coach Bill Parcells called out both Canty and Marcus Spears publicly for lackluster play. After that, Canty put together a more solid effort in the pass rush, but again, expectations exceeded the reality. With the arrival of Wade Phillips and his attacking Phillips 34 defense, the hopes are that Canty will take full advantage of his physical gifts and become a terror in the offensive backfield. This is an important year for Canty who needs to prove his worth as a starter or face the inevitable speculation about his future.
Marcus Spears, the other starter at defensive end, is in a similar position to that of Canty. While Canty slipped in the draft because of injury issues, Spears was the 20th pick in the first round and much was expected of him. So far, he hasn’t legitimized that pick spent by the Cowboys in the first round. Last year’s public rebuke by Parcells didn’t seem to change Spears’ play at all. For the first part of the year he was OK in the run game but seemed to have a drop off in his play over the last part of the season. And at no time has he shown the ability to get pressure on the QB. Like Canty, the hope by the Cowboys organization is that the aggressive Phillips 34 defense will allow Spears to show his natural gifts. Reports are that Spears is a player who relies on quickness and up field pressure as opposed to a hold-your-ground defensive end that was the required in the Parcells’ version of the 3-4 defense.
Both Canty and Spears need to show that in the right scheme they can be a force in the 3-4 defense. This requires not only solid run defense but the ability to apply consistent pressure to the QB. In other words, they need to become playmakers.
Reserves – Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff, Stephen Bowen
Jason Hatcher was a 3rd round pick last year who showed a lot of promise. He was actually better at applying pressure to the QB than establishing position along the line and taking on the run game. He seems to be a natural fit for what Wade Phillips wants in his defensive scheme because he is a better player when he’s moving forward toward the offensive backfield. If he is able to build on his success from his rookie season in this year’s training camp it’s possible he could challenge for a starter’s role. But that’s a big assumption because while he showed good skills that came in limited play, a lot of that time came in passing situations. Being an every down defensive end is still something he needs to prove he can handle.
Jay Ratliff had a very impressive training camp last year and was used along the 4-man defensive front when the Cowboys went to the nickel defense – along with Hatcher. Ratliff has a non-stop engine and is a very active player who works very hard to get into the offensive backfield. While possibly not as physically as gifted as some of the other ends, his energetic play makes him a valuable reserve. He can also backup the NT position in a pinch.
Stephen Bowen got very little playing time last year and has yet to show exactly how he can help the team. Training camp will be vital for his survival on the regular roster.
After spending quite a few high draft picks on the defensive end position over the last couple of years, the Cowboys may be content to go into 2007 with what they have and count on the aggressive Phillips 34 scheme to bring out the best in their current players. Defensive end isn’t a "need" position, but they might be tempted if a highly-rated end falls in the draft, possibly someone like Adam Carriker. But more than likely, they will only use a pick in this area with some of their numerous late-round choices, if at all.