The Dallas defense is clearly a talented unit. More than half of the names expected to start in 2010 are former first-round picks. They've even acquired starting quality players in the seventh round, such as Jay Ratliff and new starting free safety Alan Ball.
Most of the names on this side of the ball are written in ink on the Cowboys depth chart. A couple, such as Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware are the best at what they do in the entire league. There are, though, a couple of aging veterans and a couple of guys who will be looking over their shoulders come training camp.
In the last two drafts, the Cowboys have selected 11 players on defense to just six on offense. While they are by no means desperate for starters, there looks to be a push to develop young talent on all three levels of the defense. The '07 guys, Ball and Anthony Spencer, are making their mark now while the '08 cornerback duo of Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick form a talented trio with veteran Terence Newman.
The 11 defenders whose names finished the '09 season atop the depth chart will definitely see at least one change because of FS Ken Hamlin's release.
- Defensive Line: RE Igor Olshansky, NT Jay Ratliff, LE Marcus Spears
- Linebackers: WLB DeMarcus Ware, MOLB Keith Brooking, MILB Bradie James, SLB Anthony Spencer
- Secondary: RCB Mike Jenkins, LCB Terence Newman, FS Ken Hamlin, SS Gerald Sensabaugh
Depending on how the 2010 season shakes out, there may be more name changes than what we can expect to see when the team takes the field September 12 in Washington.
The Defensive Line
Ratliff commands the middle and is essentially the heart of the front seven. It's got to be tough on the coaches to take a player of his caliber off the field, even in subpackages. The only competition at this nose guard position will be who will be Ratliff's primary backup. Junior Siavii is penciled in there and will have to prove himself against the likes of 7th-rounder Sean Lissemore and UDFA Junior Aumavae.
At one end position Olshansky's name is in ink, at least for running downs. Behind him, Stephen Bowen plays the 1990s-Jim-Jeffcoat role. Bowen, who was atop the team leaderboard in quarterback pressures last season, could also vie for a starting role opposite Olshansky. While Bowen may get more pass-rushing opportunities, incumbent starter Marcus Spears knows that his job on first and second downs is to hold the line and keep guards off his linebackers.
Spears says he knows he's played well because the defense ranked fourth in rushing yards allowed per game, while Bradie James and Keith Brooking combined for 337 tackles.
"That's how I gauge myself, honestly," Spears said. "When I look at film, I look at 'Did I let that guard get to Bradie? Did I let those guys off the line? Are my linebackers free making plays? Am I making the plays that I'm supposed to make?' And not a lot of times this year I can say that didn't happen. I'll continue to gauge it off that because that's my job."
Because of draft day trade rumors, Spears is one of the only starters on defense who doesn't have his name tattooed on the first team unit. This camp, the Cowboys will see whether Bowen or fifth-year player Jason Hatcher are ready to assume a starting role. Both will make more money than Spears this year, who hasn't had any success in talks regarding a contract extension with the team.
And the Cowboys have hopes that Marcus Dixon will be able to contribute to the 53-man roster this year. With his presence, that should boost a guy like Hatcher up the depth chart. Hatcher, being a better run defender than Bowen, looks like the favorite to unseat Spears.
Ware, Brooking, James, and Spencer are all locks to resume their starting positions. Together, they are arguably one of the finer linebacking quartets in the league.
Behind Ware and Spencer on the outside, second-year players Brandon Williams and Victor Butler should provide quality depth. Look for Coach Phillips to try to rotate Williams and Butler in on subpackages, much like he did to some success with Butler last season. Both will still be learning to play up as OLBs, but we should see one or both along the line on third downs.
After tearing his ACL last year, Williams has shown in OTAs that he has an impressive first step.
"It's the first day he's really let it loose more," Phillips said. "He got a feel last week. In fact, I went to the trainer and said, 'Is he OK?' the first day, and Jim (Maurer) said he's going to feel his way for a little while but then he's going to get more and more confidence.
"And then today he was coming off the ball like he did last year in his pass rush."
Behind the inked-in "Mo" (Brooking) and "Mike" (James) linebackers are Jason Williams and rookie Sean Lee, respectively. With the trading of Bobby Carpenter, a semi-starting role as the nickel LB has opened up. This will be a fun training camp battle to watch, but I have a feeling the deciding factor will be how Williams and Lee perform in the preseason. Also, we can't forget about Stephen Hodge. He too could be in the mix, but his recovery from microfracture surgery will keep him from practicing until training camp.
While the coaches will try to get both Williams and Lee on the field some this season, I'm predicting that Williams is penciled in more heavily at the nickel LB spot over Lee. His speed seems perfect for the role, and the coaches had a year to develop him.
These are two young talents, so there is a high possibility that one of the two will be starting in place of Brooking in 2011. Whoever wins the nickel LB spot this year could have the advantage.
The Cowboys are set at CB #s 1, 2, and 3 with Jenkins, Newman, and Scandrick, who in the nickel is a semi-starter. The team is looking for a fourth CB, which is a position that will be up for grabs between Cletis Gordon, Marquis Floyd, and rookies Jamar Wall, and Bryan McCann. Recently, this was a role manned by Alan Ball. But he will see most of his training camp work fighting for the starting free safety gig.
We all know that Ball isn't a Mack Truck in regards to size, but that doesn't mean he can't play well as a free safety.
"I've been playing football all my life, and I've been -- 'quote-unquote' -- undersized all my life," he said after opening organized team activities last week as the starter at the position, where he filled in last year during Ken Hamlin's injury absence.
"But I am here today, and I am still ready to continue to play."
Wade Phillips says that Ball, being 6'1" 190, may be relatively small; although, he is not all that concerned about it. And secondary coach Dave Campo thinks that Ball's time as a starter last season will help him further with his "inside" tackling techniques.
"His tackling and stuff, in the ballgames, because of his size, is really the only drawback on him," Phillips said. "I think he's going to be a really good free safety-type guy. Our free safety wasn't involved in a lot of the tackling, anyway."
Campo said Ball's four starts last season lessened some of the concerns.
"What he did in those four games, how he improved his tackling in the open field, those are all things that he didn't have to do as a corner," Campo said. "At corner he did everything from the outside in. It's like an angle. It's harder to play inside when you've got an open field."
Although Dallas drafted Akwasi Owusu-Ansah with the expectations of moving him to FS, Ball's main competition for the starting spot this year will come from Michael Hamlin. At 6'2" 212 pounds, Hamlin offers a bigger, more physical presence than Ball. Though he lacks experience, it has been said that he is a smart, athletic player with excellent ball skills.
"Hamlin is big. He's a physical guy, and he can catch the football," Campo said. "He seemed to have pretty good instincts last year before he got hurt."
Hamlin also offers the Cowboys some versatility, as he can also backup starting strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh. Also back there are Patrick Watkins and UDFAs Barry Church and Danny McCray.
At this point, Ball's name may be written in a little darker than Hamlin's. With this being his fourth year in the league, his experience should help earn him the spot.
Although Alan Ball appears to be the frontrunner to replace Ken Hamlin, the younger Hamlin will push for playing time this summer. The Cowboys like Michael Hamlin's instincts and physical style of play, and he has made a concerted effort to get stronger by adding 10-12 pounds in the offseason. At the very least, the Cowboys can use him on multiple special teams units.
Ball has been around long enough to take on Ken Hamlin's "quarterback" duties as well. Though, I wouldn't put it past the coaches to find ways to get Mike Hamlin some snaps in the regular season, especially if Ball is needed at CB.
When Jerry Jones began this offseason saying the Cowboys were going to be "aggressive" with their roster, he evidently did not mean via free agency. Any new starters on this squad would be players from the '09 team-players who have been developed, who the team is ready to see take that next step.
In analyzing the offense's side of Dallas' expected opening day roster, I found only two starting positions (RB and LG) written in pencil. With the exception of subpackage players, I found only two on defense as well: DE and FS.
Defensive Positions in Ink:
RE, NT, WLB, SLB, MOLB, MILB, CB1, CB2, SS
Defensive Positions* Penciled In:
If the Cowboys find themselves with four-and-a-half new starters on both sides of the ball, then that is a rather aggressive offseason. This is a tremendously talented football team, so the coaches must have a ton of faith in each new and returning starter. Of course, injuries can switch things up, but the competition the staff has created at these penciled-in positions may prove to be a team strength throughout the season.
Recently, Dallas has been criticized for drafting "backup" or role players on defense. With guys like Hatcher, Ball, and Hamlin all fighting for starting spots, there does seem to be a method to its drafting madness. And by this time next year, who knows? There could be a Lee, J. Williams, or even an Akwasi-Ansah atop the depth chart.