In part two of a three part series I’ll be taking an in-depth look at the top defensive players at each position from the 2011 Dallas Cowboys. Obviously we didn’t get the desired results from this group, but there were standouts and players we can look forward to seeing perform at a top level for years to come. At the same time there are some serious needs on this side of the ball that should be addressed in this year’s draft and free agency periods. Let’s take a look at what we’ve got.
Every year the top performer at the linebacker is none other than Pro Bowl and All-American linebacker DeMarcus Ware and 2011 was no different. Ware produced at a high level once again, sacking opposing quarterbacks 19 and a half times and compiling 58 total tackles and two forced fumbles. Ware is an elite player and a future hall of fame candidate in my book. He takes the cake as the top performer from the 2011 linebackers and looks to stay there for the foreseeable future. Or does he?
Before this year Ware never really had a stud in the linebacking corps that could compete for the alpha-dog title. Then along came Sean Lee, who burst on the scene late last year and wreaked havoc on opposing offenses in 2011. If you go back to last year when the Cowboys played the Indianapolis Colts, Lee showcased what he is capable of doing when he intercepted Peyton Manning twice and ran one back for a touchdown. He only built upon that exciting performance this year, leading the team with 105 tackles and tying Terrence Newman for the most interceptions with four. Lee has a bright future ahead of him if he can stay healthy and remain on the field. Time will tell if that is possible, but in my opinion he will continue to produce at a high level for some time.
The main area of need here is someone opposite DeMarcus Ware that can generate a pass rush. Anthony Spencer has shown flashes of greatness, but has not lived up to his first-round draft status. Ware is usually double teamed which leaves other guys, including most notably Spencer, with favorable match-ups. The best way to upgrade this position is to get pressure from somewhere else other than Ware and then sit back and watch the sacks pile up.
The defensive end position is one of many on the Cowboys roster that is in need of an upgrade. We saw what a killer set of defensive ends can do in New York and it is something the Cowboys need to do in order to be competitive.
It was difficult to select a clear-cut, top performer from this unit. The ends work on a rotation that keeps them form seeing every defensive play so the numbers were far from staggering. In the end Jason Hatcher was the most productive. In 2011 he compiled 28 tackles, one forced fumble and four and a half sacks, which was a career high. His tackle numbers are nothing to write home about, but he came in third on the team in sacks and he started to come on strong during the last half of the season. I could see a more increased role for him in the coming years, and hopefully he’ll continue to improve and make plays.
Like last year, the speculation surround this position is whether or not Jay Ratliff will be moving to defensive end. Again we can only speculate with this, but it seems like if the Cowboys are going to stick with the 3-4 defense, Ratliff would be best suited as an end. There are a lot of factors to consider here so we’ll just have to take the wait-and-see approach on this one.
Like DeMarcus Ware and the linebacker position, the mainstay at tackle has been Jay Ratliff. His numbers are down from previous years, but his presence is always felt along the defensive line. In 2011 Ratliff had 38 tackles and two sacks. He’s seen his sack numbers decrease in every season since his career high in 2008 when he had seven and a half. This may be a sign that it is time to move him to defensive end. Ratliff is undersized for a tackle and has always relied on his quickness to get to the quarterback. By moving him to end, the Cowboys may be able to take advantage of his skill set and free up Ware from all of the double teams he sees.
If Ratliff does move to end there are some possible free agents that could be brought in to fill the interior line. A couple of possibilities could be Tommy Harris, who played in Indianapolis last year, or Shaun Rogers from New Orleans. Both of these tackles have excelled at the position in the past, and could be possible fits in Dallas’ 3-4 defense as space eaters. This is only speculation though because a lot depends on if Ratliff would willingly accept a position change.
There was a lot to be desired from the strong safety position. Last offseason the Cowboys signed Abram Elam during free agency with the idea that he was going to come in and direct Rob Ryan’s complex scheme on the field. The results were mixed to put it lightly. Elam’s name was rarely called when it came to coverage unless he was out of place or being burned down the field. He did not record a single pass deflection or interception and seemed to be more of a liability than an asset. Maybe he spent more time teaching others than focusing on his own assignments or maybe the unfortunate passing of his father stuck with him and affected his play. The only bright spot with Elam’s play is at the end of the season he recorded 68 tackles which put him in third for the team lead.There is a long list of available free agent safeties to chose from, but in the end I think the Cowboys keep Elam around on another one year deal, like they did with Gerald Sensabaugh, and see if he can perform well enough to warrant keeping him around long term. Otherwise it’s back to the drawing board… again.
Gerald Sensabaugh was the main contributor at free safety last season so he gets the nod by default. The safety position in general is a hard one to keep a steady contributor on the field, at least for the Cowboys anyway, and Sensabaugh has been ol’ reliable at the position for the past three seasons. Nothing too flashy, at the same time you don’t hear his name being called as often as others when someone gets burned by a big play. He came in second on the team with 75 tackles and intercepted opposing quarterbacks twice. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones locked up Sensabaugh with a five year contract so he will be roaming the secondary for the foreseeable future.
Cornerback is one of the biggest needs for the Cowboys. Time after time last season the secondary was torched by big plays. Mike Jenkins couldn’t stay on the field, Terence Newman faded fast during the last half of the season, and journeyman Frank Walker and “the eternal experiment” Alan Ball need to move on. So by default Orlando Scandrick gets to carry the title of “top performer” in a unit that needs some serious work. Scandrick posted 49 tackles, two sacks and one interception. The numbers don’t blow you away, but he missed time early in the season. He came on strong after he returned to the field and that’s probably the only reason he gets the nod as top performer. The only way we’ll know what he’s truly capable of is if he gets to start and stay on the field for the majority of the game. If this happens next year we’ll be able to see if the contract Jerry Jones signed him to was worth anything.
It seems like everyone in the NFL community is picking Dallas to use at least one pick on a corner in this year’s draft. For example, take a look at what NFL analysts are projecting the ‘Boys do with their first round pick (number 14 overall). The name that stands out to me, and one that many people are projecting Dallas to take, on this list is Dre Kirkpatrick out of Alabama. I know what you’re thinking. He has had some drug issues recently, charges that were dropped mind you, but he is the kind of corner Dallas needs in order to keep up with the receivers they face in the NFC east each year. At 6′ 2″ and 192 lbs. he has good size. He’s strong and a good tackler. He also has 4.4 speed which is vital in the NFL today. Receivers are getting bigger and faster, and without a good skill set, like Kirkpatrick’s, then prospective NFL corners will get eaten alive. I don’t know about you, but I get chills thinking about Kirkpatrick going toe-to-toe with Hakeem Nicks of the New York Giants, and keeping him quiet all game long. Maybe it’s just the kid in me fantasizing, but that’s something I’d love to see on a regular basis.
In the end, we can expect the majority of the Cowboy’s offseason moves to happen on the defensive side of the ball. So let’s just sit back and wait for the moves to begin.