There’s a lot of optimism in Big D this season, and a number of reasons to think the Cowboys can really turn the corner in 2012. This team isn’t without their weaknesses, however. Here are the top three ...
No. 2 Defensive End
Jason Hatcher will man one end of the Cowboys’ defensive line, and he’ll be just fine. I’ve graded Hatcher high for years. He was third on the team in hits and sacks in 2011, and fourth in pressures with 14. That’s pretty awesome for a five-technique defensive end.
Opposite Hatcher, however, there could be issues. Sean Lissemore deserves to start, in my opinion, but he may not get that chance. Lissemore, who I graded as the Cowboys’ second-most efficient player in 2011 (behind outside linebacker Victor Butler), pressured the quarterback on 5.3 percent of his pass rush snaps last season—a rate higher than that of Jay Ratliff.
Rob Ryan may decide to opt for a run-stuffing defensive end on early downs, however. Plus, regardless of Lissemore’s prowess, the Cowboys’ defensive line is really a revolving door. For example, three defensive ends (Hatcher, Marcus Spears, and Kenyon Coleman) played at least 38 percent of defensive snaps in 2011, but none of them played more than 41 percent of snaps.
Ultimately, the Cowboys really lack depth on the entire defensive line, and that’s probably the worst unit on which to have a dearth of talent.
This might seem trivial, but a great returner can really be a game-changer. Kick returners have become less significant with the recent upswing in touchbacks, but punt returners in particular can completely swing momentum.
The Cowboys’ return game has been horrific over the past decade, and it doesn’t look to be improving. Felix Jones is really indecisive on kick returns. Raymond Radway and Teddy Williams both possess elite speed, but neither player is likely to be on the final roster. Dez Bryant obviously offers something special on punt returns, but the Cowboys can’t risk losing the focal point of their offense.
Right now, the ‘Boys simply don’t have much of anything in the return department. If they bring in a free agent wide receiver as they did last year with Laurent Robinson, don’t be surprised if they opt for someone who can add something as a returner.
The interior line is getting beaten to death in the media, but for good reason. I’ve tried to find something positive from them during my preseason film study, but I just can’t do it. Phil Costa has been injured and David Arkin has been horrific at center. Nate Livings has probably been the best of the bunch, but I’d give him just a C- grade in his early preseason work.
And it isn’t as if the interior line isn’t important. Teams with a top 20 interior lineman, as graded by Pro Football Focus
, have consistently won more games than those that field poor interior linemen.
Right now, the interior line is undoubtedly the biggest issue that could plague the Cowboys in the 2012 regular season. Until we see legitimate improvement inside, I don’t think we can consider the ‘Boys a playoff-caliber team.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.
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