In the NFL, windows open and close in the blink of an eye. Depending on the perspective you take on the Cowboys, their window of opportunity could be flying open or just about shut. Veterans Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, and even Tony Romo may not have much time left to make a run at a Super Bowl. On the other hand, the ‘Boys have quietly restocked their pool of young talent with Dez Bryant, Morris Claiborne, DeMarco Murray, Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, and Brandon Carr.
Ultimately, I think windows close only for those teams that let it happen. With the incredible turnover within the league, any team can legitimately become a contender in just a couple of seasons. Nonetheless, it’s still nice to know how many more productive seasons your veterans can give you.
A few weeks ago, I took a look at the historic rates of decline for a few positions. The good news from that study is that Tony Romo should remain near his career peak production for at least three or four more seasons. The bad news is that a few key cogs on defense are likely to see a precipitous drop in efficiency in the near future. One of those players is defensive tackle Jay Ratliff.
To better predict Ratliff’s future outlook, I decided to track his career production against others at his position. I created the following formula to measure production: 3(Sacks) + 2(Hits) + Pressures + Tackles. Using this formula, pass-rushing totals end up being around two-thirds of players’ total production, which I think is about right in today’s pass-happy NFL.
If you aren’t adept at reading graphs, that roller coaster-type thing above is Jay Ratliff’s worst nightmare. Historically, defensive tackle play tends to peak at around age 27. There is a small decline until age 30, after which the chances for success plummet. Few defensive tackles can maintain high productivity after their age 30 season.
Worse, you can see Ratliff’s past production is eerily similar to that of the typical defensive tackle. While that doesn’t mean Ratliff’s play will necessarily fall off a cliff, it isn’t a good sign.
And guess what? Ratliff turns 31 years old in exactly two weeks. Uh oh.
Based on the similarity of those curves and the historical output for all defensive tackles, Ratliff may be in for a steep decline as soon as this season. If his play continues to mirror that of the typical defensive tackle, we’re looking at around 74 percent of peak production in 2012—perhaps 20 or so individual tackles and just a couple of sacks.
Great teams replace aging veterans before it’s too late. If I were in the Cowboys’ front office, I’d be looking to find the heir apparent to Ratliff over anyone else. It pains me to say it—Ratliff is a hard-working leader and a heck of a teammate—but his time as a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle may be up.
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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