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Upgrading The Cowboys Personnel: Defensive Line

With very few 3-4 defensive linemen available in free agency, the Cowboys may look to the draft to find the personnel Rob Ryan needs for his scheme to be successful.

In the first installment of this series, we discussed the need to upgrade the secondary. The Cowboys went out and made a big splash in free agency, signing one of the cornerbacks we featured, Brandon Carr. This is the type of cornerback Rob Ryan desperately needed in order to run his pressure defense. Carr is a great pickup for the Cowboys because he is young and has his best football ahead of him.

The team also made a move upgrading the free safety position bringing in former Ryan pupil Brodney Pool. For a one-year deal, this is a perfect signing for the Cowboys. There is basically a no risk, high reward here. If Pool pans out, you get a fabulous discount and you can resign him down the road. If he is a bust, it is only for one year. The Cowboys needed to do something at safety and Pool is an upgrade over Abram Elam.

It doesn't mean that they are done upgrading the secondary. The Cowboys war room could add another cornerback and safety in the draft. Frankly, it would be a good idea to continue stacking up on talent in the secondary. With the NFL becoming more of a passing league, the Cowboys should continue to improve against the pass.

Part Two: The Defensive Line

This is the next position that the Cowboys need to upgrade and give Rob Ryan better personnel at. In order to successfully run a good 3-4 defense, you need defensive ends that can pressure the quarterback and stop the run. There are two very good players already on the Cowboys roster in Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore.

Hatcher is a bit of a late bloomer, but is finally becoming a quality defensive end. He is the Cowboys best disruptive player at the five technique (defensive end) and generates a pass rush. Lissemore is a young, up and coming player that offers the defensive line versatility. He can line up at the defensive end and nose tackle position.

Then you have Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears, who are primarily run defenders. It would not surprise me to see Coleman released this offseason. He is a pure run stuffer and offers nothing as a pass rusher. Spears may be a bust as a first-round draft pick, but he has his moments on the field and is a solid player.

At defensive tackle, Dallas has a former All-Pro in Jay Ratliff. The nose tackle position is not a glamorous position and it requires a lot of physical ability to play it; typically, you see larger players who use their size to eat up space. Ratliff defies the odds and is one of the most undersized players at nose tackle. He is listed at 6-4, and 287 pounds. It has always amazed me how a man of his size plays at a position where size is a must.

Ratliff will turn 31 this summer and he is beginning to take a step backwards. He is still one of the best nose tackles in the NFL, but time and being undersized are taking the longevity out of his career. Hopefully he can continue to play at a high level, because I have never seen a pass-rushing nose tackle before.

Josh Brent appears to be the Cowboys future at the position. He is just 24 years old and is continuing to develop into a quality player. What Ratliff lacks in size, Brent has. He weighs in at 6-2, 320 pounds and that is more of the typical size you want up the middle. If he continues to develop as a player, he may eventually replace Ratliff.

If the Cowboys want to get better pressure on the quarterback, they may want to start on the defensive line. Having disruptive defensive lineman will open plays up for the linebackers behind them. I am beginning to wonder if this is the plan they have in mind with Anthony Spencer. Upgrade the defensive end in front of him and that will open up opportunities for Spencer to make plays.

It also doesn't hurt to have a rotation of good defensive lineman to keep fresh during games. Jimmy Johnson did this during his run of greatness in the 90's, and I wouldn't mind seeing Rob Ryan use a rotation of disruptive defensive lineman.

Free Agency

This is the one area the Cowboys did not upgrade in free agency. There really wasn't a good market for 3-4 defensive lineman anyway, so let's not fault them for not bringing anyone in via free agency.

The Draft

This is where the team can upgrade the defensive line and get younger at the same time. Last year there was a serious interest in Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt. The Cowboys chose to go with USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith, but they couldn't go wrong with either player.

Unfortunately there are no J.J. Watt type of defensive lineman in this year's draft class. Of course there are really good prospects at the position, but I just do not see those type of talents in this year's draft.

Dontari Poe

One prospect that has been on my radar for a while now is Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe. At the NFL Combine, he put on a show. The 6-4, 346 pound defensive tackle displayed a combination of strength and athleticism that is rarely seen in defensive tackles.

  • 4.98 40 yard dash
  • 44 reps of 225 pounds
  • 29.5 inch vertical jump
  • 105 inch broad jump
  • 7.90 three-cone drill
  • 4.56 20 yard shuttle

Poe's combine was similar to Haloti Ngata's when he was coming out of Oregon. This is the popular comparison circulating the NFL right now. Ngata went 12th overall to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2006 NFL Draft and Poe could go even higher than that. Baylor defensive tackle Phil Taylor was a prospect that I really liked last year and Poe might be an even better prospect.

Teams picking in the top 15 will place a premium on a big defensive lineman who has athleticism. At one time, I thought Poe would definitely be available when the Cowboys went on the clock with the 14th overall pick, but I am beginning to believe he won't be. This is the type of nose tackle that you could build your entire defense around. Ryan could also kick Poe out to defensive end like Baltimore does with Ngata and vice versa.

If he falls to 14, the Cowboys should be very interested in drafting him. The problem is, he may be long gone before we even get a chance to make him a Dallas Cowboy.

Michael Brockers

Brockers is another prospect that I have been higher on even though many disagree. While he has plenty of immense physical talent that has not been tapped into yet. The LSU defensive end only played two seasons and there are questions about whether he will be a bust in the NFL like Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey. He didn't help his draft stock with an unspectacular combine performance, but he did add a lot of weight that may have hindered him in the combine drills.

He has the size to be perfect as a defensive end in our 3-4 scheme. Brockers weighs in at 6-5, 322 pounds. Most impressively, his 35 inch arms make him extremely dangerous as a pass rusher, while his size will allow him to consistently take on double teams.

His athleticism will also play a big part in his success in the NFL. He is scheme versatile and can play inside or outside, depending on the situation. There is no doubt that Brockers is still developing and he is a little raw. With good NFL coaching he will maximize his talent and learn proper techniques that will highlight his size and athleticism.

Often you hear the term "boom or bust" prospect. Brockers falls into that category because his upside is amazing, but he could develop into a bust like his fellow high draft picks on the defensive line from LSU. I think he is a legitimate option for the Cowboys at 14. He is the type of defensive end the Cowboys have been looking for since they lost Chris Canty a few years ago.

Fletcher Cox

The Mississippi State defensive lineman is experienced and played in one of the best conferences in college football. His stock was rising heading into the combine and he performed well there besides a less than spectacular vertical jump of 26 inches. The low vertical jump does concern me because that drill is usually associated with a pass rushers burst.

What he did display was his athleticism. At 6-4, 298 pounds, he is a lean and muscular defensive lineman. His 34 1/2 inch arms are a definite advantage for him and he can use them to wreak havoc on the line. Once again this is another prospect with upside. Cox is beginning to come into his own and is still fine tuning his craft. Right now he is relying on his athletic ability. With NFL coaching, he should begin to learn better technique to win battles on the line.

Versatility is another benefit with Cox. Primarily he would be a defensive end in our scheme, but he can play defensive tackle. Having the ability to move him around will give Rob Ryan more room to be creative with his blitzes. Cox is the type of defensive lineman that can rush the passer and stop the run. He does get too high in his stance sometimes, but that is something he will need to fix once he is in the NFL.

He is beginning to rise in recent mock drafts and I have seen him go in the top 15. Cox looks like the type of prospect the Cowboys would love to add to their defensive line. He should be available at 14 and looks like a real possibility for the Cowboys to target in the first round.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.