Improving D-line the top offseason priority

IRVING, Texas -- So much for the defensive line being a position of strength for the Dallas Cowboys, as Jerry Jones declared during draft weekend.

Improving that unit will be the Cowboys’ top offseason priority, according to executive vice president and director of player personnel Stephen Jones.

“I think our biggest challenge is to get a better roster – get us to where we can compete better,” Stephen Jones said Monday on 105.3 The Fan. “I think it will start with our defensive front there. We put a lot of energy into the offensive line the last couple of years. I think we did some good there with Tyron [Smith] and [Travis] Frederick in terms of shoring that up, doing some things there with Doug [Free], who came along this year and played well.

“Obviously we’ll turn our attention to the front seven. With the injuries and the cap situation that we have, we’ll certainly have to take a long, hard look at it. My number one goal in the offseason is to improve our roster, especially in the front seven.”

The Dallas defensive line was hit hard by injuries this season, causing the Cowboys to use 19 players in the front four. The Cowboys did not address the defensive line in this year’s draft, passing on Florida’s Sharrif Floyd despite the fifth-ranked player on their board falling to them at No. 18 overall.

Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, who the Cowboys were counting on to be an impact player despite a significant recent injury history, declining production and attitude problems, didn’t play a down for Dallas this season before his acrimonious release. Defensive end Anthony Spencer, who was paid $10.6 million after the Cowboys used the franchise tag to keep him, played one game before undergoing microfracture knee surgery and going on injured reserve. Tyrone Crawford, the team’s top young defensive lineman, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon suffered on the first day of training camp.

The Cowboys need Crawford to make a complete recovery and at least compete for a starting job next season. He’s likely to replace either Spencer or defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who made it clear after his career year that he’ll sign with the highest bidder in free agency.

“We have nothing but respect for that, but we don’t want to be ruled out of it,” Stephen Jones said of Hatcher. “We’ve had really good players go into the open market – Jay Novacek and Darren Woodson – that ended up back in Dallas. We’re certainly going to keep our hat in the ring. You never know what markets are going to do out there and how things are going to be.

“We certainly would love to have Jason back, but as he said, he’s got to take care of his family and we have to do what’s best for the Cowboys.”

Whether Hatcher returns or not, the Cowboys will commit a lot of resources this offseason to filling holes on their defensive line.