Dallas Cowboys defensive end roster evaluation.
Starter: Chris Canty – When Chris Canty was drafted by the Cowboys in the 4th round in 2005 I thought we just got a steal. I follow ACC football closely and remember Canty from his days at Virginia and thought this kid had all the talent in the world and the perfect physical build for a 3-4 defensive end. Only the injury problems made him slide as far as he did in the draft. He came from Al Groh’s 3-4 scheme which was basically just a knockoff of Bill Parcells’ defense. Here was a guy with the talent, the build and the knowledge that would allow him to be a force right away. Of course, back then we hadn’t made the full conversion to the 3-4 so Canty would have to ease himself into the lineup. That’s the build-up; but once we made the conversion and Canty was inserted as the starter, I didn’t think he was living up to his potential.
He was serviceable, he played the run fairly well by taking on blocks and clogging up the lanes but outside of that there wasn’t much going on. Defensive ends in the 3-4 are never going to get the glory because they are charged with doing the dirty work that allows the OLB’s to make the plays. Still, they should provide some disruptive plays in the opponent’s backfield and occasionally make the sack or a tackle for loss. We just weren’t getting that from Canty – or Marcus Spears for that matter. But finally, this year, Canty started to show the promise we’d been waiting on. Besides playing the run at the point of attack, Canty started to disrupt runs in the backfield and started getting pressure on the QB along with a few sacks. That’s the kind of all-around play you want from a DE in the 3-4. Canty has the perfect frame for the position; he’s tall so he can get his arms up in the passing lanes, he’s quick and athletic allowing him to beat blocks and get to the ball, and he has the strength to absorb double-team blocks and hold his position. Maybe it’s Wade Phillips’ new attacking scheme or the light finally went on for him, but Canty has emerged as a very good defensive end. He’s also emerged as a restricted free agent and the Cowboys need to lock him up for the future. They can tender him for one year and protect themselves by getting a draft pick or match any offer he gets, or they can go ahead and try to sign him to a long-term contract. Either way, the Cowboys need Canty on their defensive line and should do whatever they need to – within reason – to keep him.
Starter: Marcus Spears – Regular readers of this blog know that I’m less than enamored with the play of Marcus Spears. To his credit, Spears does play the run satisfactorily in the sense that he will take on the double-teams and still hold the point of attack – on most occasions – clogging up the running lanes. But that’s about all he does. He rarely gets off the block to make the actual tackle which a starting defensive end should be able to do with some kind of regularity. And he almost never provides disruptive plays in the backfield resulting in QB hurries or sacks, or tackles for loss on the ball carrier. In essence, he’s a one-trick pony and that trick isn’t all that hard to accomplish, many defensive ends could give you similar play. In a previous post I’ve stated that I would like for the Cowboys to move Jay Ratliff back to DE and take over Spears starter’s role. It’s been mentioned that Spears could be on the trading block; if the Cowboys can better their draft position in the early rounds or can pick up an extra draft pick this year, then I would have no problem with them trading Spears. If Jay Ratliff is moved back to end then we have plenty of depth at the position to justify trading Spears. Even if he remains on the team, the Cowboys need to make him a reserve and let some of the other potential talent at the position see the field more often.
Jason Hatcher – Yes, on draft day when we selected Hatcher I said ‘who the heck is Jason Hatcher and why are we drafting him?’ OK, I’m man enough to admit when I’m wrong and I was wrong on this one. Hatcher is a natural pass-rusher with a similar build to Chris Canty. A hamstring injury in training camp this year hamstrung his development in 2007 but when given the opportunity Hatcher makes plays. His weakness has been playing the run and holding the point of attack when double-teamed, too often he gives ground in that situation but he has improved on it from his rookie campaign to his sophomore campaign. If the Cowboys don’t move Jay Ratliff back to defensive end, it’s time to insert Hatcher into the starting lineup and see how he does with regular playing time. He also can play end or tackle when the Cowboys go to a 4-man line just like Canty. Hatcher is already starter material as a pass rusher and if he can show he’s mastered playing the run as a 3-4 defensive end, then he needs to get regular playing time. He should either backup Jay Ratliff or move ahead of Marcus Spears at left defensive end.
Stephen Bowen – The Cowboys recently re-signed Bowen who was an exclusive-rights free agent at the end of the 2007 season. Quietly, Bowen has started to show some quality play when he gets the opportunity. Much like Hatcher, his best moments have come when rushing the passer and he’s made the most of his limited opportunities. As the backup to Chris Canty he’s a valuable reserve but he’s also capable of making plays in the regular rotation. If Bowen can continue to show improvement then the Cowboys will have the kind of line rotation where any combination of players – Canty, Hatcher, Ratliff or Bowen – can be on the field and we can expect quality play.
Marcus Smith – I’m not even going to pretend that I can give an evaluation of Smith, I just haven’t seen enough of him play to form an intelligent analysis. If anybody knows more about him, you’re welcome to post it in the comments.