Hatcher last Dallas D-line starter standing

IRVING, Texas -- Nobody anticipated that Jason Hatcher would be the headliner of the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line.

Many, including the Dallas coaching staff and front office, considered Hatcher to be the biggest question mark among the front four entering training camp. There was a ton of talk about how much the switch to a 4-3 would rejuvenate Jay Ratliff. DeMarcus Ware is one of the premier pass-rushers in NFL history. Anthony Spencer was coming off a career year. There were doubts about whether the 6-foot-6, 299-pound Hatcher, whose salary is a fraction of those guys’, had the frame to make the transition from 3-4 defensive end to 4-3 tackle.

Six weeks later, Hatcher is the last defensive line starter standing. And he’s arguably been the Cowboys’ best defensive player so far this season.

The 31-year-old Hatcher, an eight-year veteran, has already established a new career high with a team-best five sacks. He’s also tied for the team lead with three tackles for losses and ranks behind only Ware with 13 quarterback pressures.

The burden has never been heavier on Hatcher, who is coming off a dominant performance in a win over the Washington Redskins. He’s already been a focus of blocking schemes who haven’t had to worry about Spencer (injured reserve with a knee injury) or Ratliff (PUP list with as he continues the longest recovery from sports hernia surgery in NFL history). Now, Ware is likely to miss a couple of games due to a strained quadriceps.

“He’s a guy that would get a lot of attention any way,” coach Jason Garrett said of Hatcher. “That attention only gets greater. And he just responds to it. ...

“He plays the right way. It’s really important to him. He works very hard. He’s one of those guys that as a coach you can point to and say, watch that guy. He validates all of the things that we’re trying to teach. He has a relentless spirit about him. Great competitive nature, and he’s shown it week in and week out.”

Hatcher has excelled as the 3-technique tackle, a position that had been earmarked for Ratliff. A challenge for the coaching staff now is to figure out ways to create one-on-one matchups for Hatcher while he’s surrounded by unproven young players and journeymen.

Hatcher’s mission is to maintain his Pro Bowl-caliber level of performance despite being the primary focus of opposing blocking schemes -- and to help the no-name guys around him raise their games.

“I’m the leader of this D-line,” Hatcher said. “Now that D-Ware is gone, I’ve got to hold these guys accountable, play the game the right way, make sure they play their butts off and don’t approach the game like backups.”

Hatcher spent much of his career as a backup. Now, despite teammates going down all around him, he’s emerged as a dominant force.