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Cowboys' Offseason Headscratcher: Can Spears and Coleman Survive the Young'uns Charge?

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Would you be surprised to see Kenyon Coleman edged off the roster by the Cowboys' cadre of young D-linemen?
Would you be surprised to see Kenyon Coleman edged off the roster by the Cowboys' cadre of young D-linemen?

Last Wednesday, as KD eloquently informed us, Pro Football Focus named Cowboys defensive lineman Sean Lissemore as one of its "secret superstars," players who accumulated impressive numbers in limited snaps. Indeed, his playmaking-to-snap ratio (if such a thing exists) is stellar; the boys at PFF marked him down for 14 defensive stops on 107 plays in run defense, which they claim is "as good as any 3-4 defensive end who played over 100 run D snaps." Delivering consistently good performances week to week, Lissemore earned a cumulative +13.8 grade in 2011, good enough for third overall on the Dallas defense - and he managed to pick up the team's highest individual run grade.

Wednesdays, of course, are the day the local Dallas media is allowed to watch OTA practices, and so there is a consequent Twitter bulge and a series of articles, analyses of Jason Garrett press conferences, etc., all of which Tom duly reports upon in his excellent OTA recaps, the most recent of which is here. So, just as KD was reporting on PFF's take on Lissemore, a Cowboys fan was asking the mothership's Josh Ellis, via Twitter, who he thought had been the "biggest unheralded standout on the defensive side of the ball?" Ellis offered up another defensive lineman, Clifton Geathers; a couple minutes later, former-Cowboys-scout-turned-pundit Bryan Broaddus added his two cents: "Nice call on Clifton Geathers."

To add fuel to any fire generated by these assessments, allow me to direct your attention to a recent installment of Kegbearer's superb "battles in the Trenches" series, on the athleticism of Dallas' defensive linemen. Taking a look at the D-linemen's various measurables, he concludes that both Lissemore and Geathers (as well as Marcus Spears) compare favorably, in terms of raw athleticism, to Lions All-World defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Regardless of how you feel about Suh's behavior, that's pretty good athletic company. And they are joined by 2012 third-rounder Tyrone Crawford, who equals or bests Suh's measurable marks in all categories save bench press (28 reps at 225 lbs compared to Suh's 32) and vertical (33 to Suh's 35.5)

Related: Cowboys DE Sean Lissemore Named Secret Superstar By Pro Football Focus

The bottom line is that Dallas has collected an impressive group of athletic young defensive linemen. The task at hand has been to develop that raw talent. PFF's positive assessment of Lissemore's productivity serves to acknowledge the fruits of this labor; our hope as Cowboys fans is that Geathers and Crawford will enjoy similar breakthroughs.

What will this mean for the defensive line's elder statesmen? That and more after the jump...

At present, the Cowboys defensive line suffers from an experience gap; it can be neatly divided between young bucks and grizzled vets, with a bit of empty space between. On one hand, still in their swaddling clothes, are Crawford (who will turn 23 around Thanksgiving); Josh Brent (24); Lissemore (24 during week two of the season) and Geathers (25 during the season). On the other hand, playing mahjong and complaining of bad hips, we have Spears (29); Jason Hatcher (who will turn 30 in July); Jay Ratliff (31 the last week of preseason); and Kenyon Coleman, who, at 33, is the team's eminence grise.

We've already noted around these parts how much younger the team has become - and how quickly - under Jason Garrett. As of today, they have seven players on the roster who are 30 or older and another, Ware, who will turn 30 during training camp. Most of these guys are either key cogs in the Dallas machine (Ratliff. Jason Witten, Tony Romo) or recent acquisitions who were brought in because the Cowboys thought they could still play (Nate Livings, Kyle Orton). That leaves two greybeards: long snapper L.P. Ladouceur and the aforementioned Coleman. Given the organization's evident desire to get younger, a reasonable assumption is this: for an old-timer to stick, he'd have to demonstrate the ability to continue to play at a high level. Ladouceur fits that bill; he's been nearly perfect in his time in Dallas.

Coleman and Spears, on the other hand, offer a different story. To stick with the PFF as our assessment tool, six of the seven Dallas D-linemen had positive grades in 2011; the exception was Spears (-3.6). The numbers are more telling when we turn to the Cowboys' Achilles heel, the defense's inability to get off the field, due to their lack of pass rush success in third and long situations. After seeing the kind of havoc a pass-rushing 5-technique like Justin Smith or J.J. Watt can wreak, we should see a premium placed on pass rushing defensive linemen. Look at last year's output: five of of Dallas' DLs earned "plus" pass rush grades. The two who didn't? Familiar names: Coleman (-1.5) and Spears (-1.8). In fact, in three of the last four years, with the Browns and Jets as well as the Cowboys, Coleman has received negative pass rush marks from PFF. Spears has been in the red the past two seasons.

In the six weeks since the 2012 draft, we have seen a bevy of posts that have bandied about the term "multiplicity," which refers not only to position flexibility but also to the ability to play both run and pass. With NFL offenses so diverse and pass-happy, the days of the two-down run stuffer have come and gone. Consequently, we must wonder: have Coleman and Spears outlived their usefulness? Late last month, O.C.C. wondered aloud (well, in print) about who might be this year's surprise cut. He wrote:

Early candidates to not make the 53-man roster team probably include Kenyon Coleman and perhaps even Marcus Spears, who will likely face some serious pressure from the young guys like Lissemore, Geathers and Crawford along the defensive line. Additionally, Coleman is on the wrong side of 30.

I agree with Cool in all aspects save one: I don't think either Coleman or Spears would be surprise cuts, especially when given the young'uns upside, athleticism and positional diversity. But that's just one man's opinion. What do you think, BTBers? Would you consider a Spears and/ or Coleman visit with The Turk as stunning as, say, Andre Gurode getting the axe in last year's final round of cuts?


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