We're taking a look back at the 2012 season by analyzing the work done by all of the Cowboys position groups by themselves. The defensive line is up next.
The Players: Jay Ratliff and Kenyon Coleman were both pencilled in as starters before the season, but injuries seriously limited the amount they were able to contribute to the defense. Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore and Marcus Spears saw increased time and responsibility as a result. So did Josh Brent, although his season came to an ugly end when he decided to drive drunk and cause the accident that killed Jerry Brown.
2012 Performance: Hatcher was the standout of the group, even if the lasting image of his season is going to be that flag for roughing Robert Griffin III in the regular season finale. His four sacks and 51 tackles were both the most among the defensive linemen.
Ratliff only played six games and was less productive than in past seasons as a result of his injuries. Coleman was never anything more than competent, something you could also say of Spears. Lissemore's got an impressive motor, although his first three years don't offer much suggestion that he's a difference maker.
Brent only has himself to blame for bringing a halt to his best pro season and possibly putting up an insurmountable obstacle to better days in the future. Tyrone Crawford pushed himself into the lineup thanks to all the injuries and he likely guaranteed himself a longer look this summer as a result of handling himself well on the interior.
Room for Improvement: Hanging over any conversation about the defensive line is the switch from Rob Ryan to Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. Moving from the 3-4 to the 4-3 will cost some people jobs (don't expect to see Coleman re-signed this offseason) but it might also allow the Cowboys to get more out of the productive players they do have.
In general, though, it's hard to say much about where the Cowboys will improve because we don't know which players will be playing what roles at this point in time. They'll need to make more plays regardless as the 4-3 puts a bigger responsibility for that on the guys up front.
Chances of Improvement: Getting Ratliff off the nose could lead to massive improvement. There's been plenty of talk about moving him to defensive end in the past, but, at the very least, Ratliff will be playing a different technique at defensive tackle and won't have to deal with the same kinds of double teams that have been a steady diet in the past. If he's healthy, that could take care of almost all the improvement that they need.
And DeMarcus Ware will be a defensive end, which makes any group look better. So does having Rod Marinelli as a position coach.
Long-Term Outlook: Again, we're moving to a new defense and that's going to change the outlook on things. Crawford and Lissemore definitely looked like guys who could be part of a successful rotation going forward, although new coaches can take things in new directions. It will be easier to know what the future will hold once we know whether or not Kiffin's defense is going to be more than a temporary feature in Dallas.
Conclusion: It's not a particularly young group and it isn't a particularly talent-rich group, but the Cowboys have enough to work with here. Ware's move to one end helps and keeping Anthony Spencer would leave the Cowboys with good camp competiion as they try to hammer their useful players into the other spots up front.