This is the first in a series of pieces on the Cowboys' preparations for the 2010 NFL Draft. They will target the draft prep market and demonstrate how the team actually prepares, and how knowing the team's mode of thinking can help you zero in on those prospects most likely to interest the Dallas brass.
Scan the Cowboys' defensive roster and look for holes. You won't find many. The team finished 2nd in scoring defense this year and has an abundance of youth. Only two starters have seen their 30th birthday.
If you go unit by unit, there is a balance of talent. The Cowboys have two outside linebackers with complete games, who can harass quarterbacks. On the line, Dallas has Jay Ratliff, a rare rush nose tackle. If there is an area where the team can improve on the front seven, look at defensive end.
Dallas has two big, run stuffing ends in Igor Olshanky and Marcus Spears. Olshansky provided an upgrade over the departed Chris Canty, in that he was stronger and more consistent against the run. Spears turned in another improved year at left end,
That said, neither offers any pass-rushing flash. Spears had a career high 2.5 this year and has just 8.0 in his five years as a Cowboy.
Wade Phillips has had pass-rushing ends at almost every stop on his coaching career. At Houston, he had the Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea. At Denver, Ron Holmes notched 9 sacks in the Super Bowl year of '89. Wade coached the all-timer Bruce Smith at Buffalo. From '95 through '98 Smith and fellow end Phil Hansen combined for 18.0 or more sacks each year; in '95, both of them reached double digits.
Imagine the pass rushing firepower the Cowboys could muster if Ratliff had another line partner who excelled at sacking quarterbacks. Situational rusher Stephen Bowen teases, but he has just 4.0 sacks in his four-year career. Right now, the Cowboys have no DE with the rushing skills of even a Phil Hansen, who had 39.5 sacks in his six years as Phillips' LDE. (Compare Hansen's production to Spears' for evidence that the rush can still get much better.)
Phillips likes to rush five, though this year, with Anthony Spencer emerging, he had the talent to pressure quarterbacks with just four men. Even so, when Dallas rushes their line and one of the Spencer-Demarcus Ware duo, only the OLB and Ratliff qualify as persistent rush threats.
If the Cowboys can find a rush end, their 3-4 scheme presents offenses with the problem of negating four exceptional rushers after first identifying which four are pursuing their quarterback.
Big ends like Jarron Gilbert were players of interest for the Cowboys in the early rounds last April. Don't be at all surprised if the position remains high on Dallas' wish list this year.