With sky divers, America's Sweethearts, and a strange glory hole reference, the Dallas Cowboys have officially opened training camp. There are some positions that feature a lot of competition for a limited number of spots, like wide receiver and offensive line.
Along the defensive line, however, there is not going to be a lot of change.
Numerically, it just isn't possible. The Cowboys carried seven defensive linemen on the roster last year. There are only ten players trying to make the team along the D line this year, including all seven of the 2011 players. This is one unit that may see very little change from last year.
This reflects the comments made earlier in the year by the front office that the defensive line is seen as a strength of the Cowboys. While some fans complained loudly about the lack of pressure up the middle generated by this unit, the coaches seem to feel that it was lack of good coverage behind this unit that caused the low sack production. With the serious upgrades made in the secondary and some likely improved pass coverage at inside linebacker, the defensive line should give more help to DeMarcus Ware in tracking down the quarterback while keeping a solid run defense in place.
The heart of the line, in more ways than one, is nose tackle Jay Ratliff. He is one of the aging core players that inspired Jerry Jones' now not-to-be-mentioned "closing window" comments. Along with Ware, Tony Romo, and Jason Witten, he is one of the team's star players who has needed more support to have a hope of playoff success before his career winds down. His sack production fell sharply in 2011, but as mentioned above, this was seen as being more due to opponents' receivers coming open early and often, rather than a lack of effort or execution on the linemen's part.
Joining Ratliff as a certain starter is DE Jason Hatcher, who had the best year of his career in 2011, by far. I don't know of many other NFL players who blossomed in their sixth year, but Hatcher certainly did. He contributed 4.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
The opposite DE starter in 2011 was Kenyon Coleman, another older player. He is 33, Ratliff will be 31 to start the season, and Hatcher is 30. Coleman was also seen as the least effective starter on the front three. He is likely to be challenged by Sean Lissemore, who has been called a secret superstar for the Cowboys. Lissemore will certainly get more playing time than last year, when he was the most effective player when his number of snaps was factored in.
The other backups from last year are DE Marcus Spears, DE Clifton Geathers, and NT Josh Brent. Spears has a rocky history with the team, in the sense that he never has seemed to live up to the first round pick that was spent on him. While he has been solid and steady, that is not what most people want to see from the player taken twentieth overall. Geathers is also seen as a player on the rise. Like Lissemore, he has the ability to slide over to the nose and help, and can also work as part of a four man line when Rob Ryan calls one of his frequently used 4-3 looks. Brent the big bruiser at the nose at 320 lbs, and seems to have a solid lock on a roster position as Ratliff's primary backup.
But there are three other players in camp. One is third round pick DE Tyrone Crawford, who was the second player taken by Dallas in the wake of the deal to trade up to pick 6 and snatch Morris Claiborne. Although the reviews are sketchy after he sat out most of the OTAs and minicamp with a calf problem, he has been getting some favorable comments. It seems almost certain that he will make the team.
The question is who he will replace, since it seems unlikely the Cowboys would carry an eighth lineman. The most likely targets for him to supplant would be Spears, Coleman and Geathers, in that order, I think (although on alternate days, I think Coleman is more likely to be replaced).
The other two D line players in camp are DE Ben Bass and DT Robert Callaway. Both appear to be long shots. However, Bass, a UDFA, has gotten some attention, particularly from Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com, who is one writer I take very seriously. And even Callaway has had some impressive moments. It is not entirely out of the question that one of them could push someone, possibly Coleman, off the team.
One thing seems likely. This will continue to be a very strong unit for the Cowboys, if quietly so. The battles in the trenches often go overlooked, but Dallas fans can rest assured that the team will have a solid group on the field in 2012.