Should Marcus Spears Start for Dallas?
It is no secret that the Cowboys shopped defensive end Marcus Spears during the draft. It is likely that Spears garnered some interest, but not enough for Dallas to give him up (they reportedly wanted a third-rounder or better).
But should the Cowboys have pulled the trigger on Spears, a restricted free agent who will almost certainly be out of Dallas in 2011? After all, Spears may not even start this season. He recently acknowledged such, claiming he knows he will have to fight for his job in training camp.
In our 2009 defensive line grades, Spears (80.2%), Jason Hatcher (80.2%), and Stephen Bowen (79.8%) all checked in with basically the same grade. Their statistics are listed to the left.
Notice that no player was dominant (or terrible) in 2009. Olshansky was clearly the team’s best run defender (at defensive end), but the best pass-rusher is debatable. Bowen led the ‘Boys in sack rate and quarterback hit rate, while Hatcher checked in with an impressive 4.40% QB pressure rate. We consider pressures to be the stat which is most indicative of a player’s pass-rushing ability.
Spears was again solid (but not stellar) versus the run, but he struggled against the pass. While he is on the field for more run plays than either Bowen or Hatcher, his quarterback pressure rate of 1.87% was lower than Olshansky’s (2.01%).
Still, we are not sure either Bowen or Hatcher would be an upgrade over Spears during early downs. Both players recorded rather poor tackle rates, and Spears is still reliable against the run.
Thus, assuming everything goes as expected during training camp (a big assumption, we admit), then we propose that Spears continues to start and get the bulk of early down work with Olshansky. We would slowly transition Bowen into Spears’ role, providing him with an increasing amount of early down snaps as the season progresses (as long as he proves he can handle the load).
Meanwhile, we believe Hatcher is going to have a breakout season. We would label him the Cowboys’ best pass-rushing defensive end, despite his lack of sacks last season. With 17 quarterback pressures, his sack number is sure to increase in 2010. We would compare the potential 2010 version of Hatcher to the ’09 version of Anthony Spencer. In other words, Hatcher is primed to break out. Don’t be surprised to see him finish the season with five or six sacks–a large number for a 3-4 end.