Cowboys' hidden treasure: Defensive line

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Everybody knows how good Dallas Cowboys nose tackle Jay Ratliff is. Expectations for him are high and always will be. But it's the two spots next to him -- the 3-4 defensive end spots -- at which the Cowboys could stand to exceed expectations. And they have reason to believe they might get more from those spots than you'd think. Whereas the role of the defensive ends in most 3-4 alignments is to clear room for the outside linebackers to get to the quarterback, the Cowboys like their ends to take on some of the pass-rush responsibilities themselves.

Jason Hatcher did well at that last year and came up with 4.5 sacks. After his offseason comments about not knowing who the team's leaders were, he'll have more eyes on him than usual this year. He's the most likely candidate for a breakout among this group, though at the other end spot the team thinks it might be able to get something out of the combination of Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman and Sean Lissemore. As of now, Coleman projects as the starter, but either of the other two could show enough in camp to pose a threat to his playing time. Whoever looks as though he can be the most disruptive in the opponent's backfield is likely to get the most looks. Rookie Tyrone Crawford projects to get himself into this mix at some point, but it's not likely to be this year.

It's also worth mentioning the Cowboys' depth at nose tackle behind Ratliff. While they want Ratliff on the field as much as possible for his pass-rush ability, the Cowboys know that Ratliff has tended to wear down late in recent seasons, and they feel better about Josh Brent as his backup than they did a year ago. You could see Ratliff come off the field occasionally on first down and second down in an effort to keep him as fresh as possible into December. The Cowboys are hoping they turn out to have enough depth on the line to help give outside linebacker/perennial terror DeMarcus Ware some help with the pass rush.