The Dallas Cowboys have reported to training camp in beautiful Oxnard, California. Another season presents one more opportunity for the core of this team to finally put the pieces together and bring home another Lombardi Trophy, but before we can even begin to contemplate that type of glory, we must start small. This team has their work cut out for them again, and everything starts in camp this summer.
The second position to watch for on my list consists of the defensive tackles and here are three points of interest.
Does Jay Ratliff Have Another Strong Year Left?
An injury last summer in training camp forced Ratliff to miss time early in the season and then a groin injury forced him to miss the end of year when the Cowboys needed his inside pressure the most. This is an important season for Ratliff because he needs to show if he can still play at a high level. Considering his age, injury issues and decreasing sack totals the last four seasons, this could be his last opportunity to provide that answer as a member of this organization.
So far, things haven't gone so well. Ratliff is already on the PUP list with a hamstring injury.
Dallas needs him in a big way. The defensive line last year wasn't the same when he was gone. His physical presence changes the way the defensive line generates pressure and their ability to penetrate into the backfield. Where Ratliff fits in best is in the 3-technique, a position that finally doesn't hold him back and allows him to take on less blockers than he saw in the past. Beaten up and wore down in the 3-4 as a nose tackle, this scheme should let him thrive because of his pass rushing ability.
Believe it or not, in the six games he did actually play in last year, Ratliff looked like a force. If he remains healthy, a good performance in 2013 should be expected, but nothing is guaranteed. His health and durability continues to be one of the biggest concerns on the defense.
Keeping The Band Together
The Cowboys took a pretty big gamble when they opted to not bring in any defensive tackles. No new draft picks or significant free agent imports puts added pressure on the group returning from last year. Not adding a potential replacement to groom for the future or back Ratliff up in case of injury is a considerable risk that this organization is taking.
If the Cowboys had made some acquisitions here, it would have provided depth. Having that along the defensive line is very important in the NFL. When you have depth and talent down the depth chart, then you can run a rotation that in theory keeps the defensive line fresh throughout a game. Looking in our own division, the New York Giants have built their line accordingly and they can rotate them all game long.
Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher should continue to play well together, if Ratliff is healthy, but unfortunately after that it becomes cloudy and unstable.
Ben Bass is a highly intriguing player, but he is making the transition to the 4-3 defense and has very little NFL experience. He is definitely a player to watch for this summer, he's got a great motor, athleticism and pass rushing skills. An unproven young prospect, but the upside is there.
Also returning is the hyped and touted Sean Lissemore. We promoted him prior to last season, only to come away disappointed because of the injuries that held him back. This is a solid player, but it's possible he will never grow into the type of defensive tackle we thought he could be. His versatility and change to a new defensive system may highlight and maximize his skill set, so this is another interesting position change to watch for.
Another Find For The Scouting Department?
Where the Cowboys could be hurting the most on the defensive line is that they lack a big hulking defensive lineman who is more of a run-stopping threat than a penetrating player. This is how Nick Hayden came into play when he was signed in February to a future/reserve contract. As a former sixth-round draft pick, the former Wisconsin Badger has bounced around the league and is now on his third team. Will the third time be a charm for him?
Josh Brent came on strong last year and thrived in his role as the larger interior player who could stop the run. Since his unfortunate situation, the Cowboys have been left with a large hole up front. Brian Price was mentioned as one of the frontrunners for Brent's role, but his injury troubles forced management to move on. Robert Callaway also received some recognition as a possible candidate, but he was let go after microfracture surgery on his knee.
This leaves Hayden as the lone big man with the size. Back in June Bryan Broaddus of the mothership did a feature on him which you can read here, and he's interested in the defensive tackle.
What the scouts also mention is that he has some nice length and size, but the trait they really like about him is that he plays with some impressive one-gap quickness, which is important in this scheme. The scouts also liked that he can also play some two-gap, which requires some strength to take on blockers and control the line.
It's definitely a long shot, but Hayden could make an impact for the Cowboys this season and possibly longer. I wouldn't bank on that and feel highly confident that a player who has bounced around the NFL is going to come in and light it up, but there is also the possibility that Dallas has found another gem.
I will leave you with one last quote from the Broaddus article because it sums up how good the scouting department is, but also highlights the situation Dallas has on the defensive line.
This pro department has had a knack for adding some veteran players that have been more than productive when they brought guys in. I still view this as a position of concern depth wise but I will be interested to see if the scouts might have hit on a guy here.
Don't be surprised if this position becomes a focus next offseason, but until then this our current situation and it's definitely something to watch for this summer.