Taylor Williams

Quarterbacks BeWare The Cowboys Defensive Ends

Created on May. 22, 2013 5:00 AM EST

With a combined hit of $18.7 million, starting DEs Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware have carved up about 15 percent of the 2013 salary cap as the team’s second- and fourth-highest paid players. Translation? The Cowboys have, perhaps inadvertently, banked hard on the idea that reinstating the 4-3 will usher elite production from their starting defensive ends, presumably on the assumption they’ll flourish with their pass-rushing talents unleashed.

Ware and Spencer both clock in around 6-foot-4, 255 pounds — modest by NFL standards for the position both played in college. Ware’s strength and punching abilities are documented; he can knock tackles off balance with his bull rush. But he also runs a 4.5 forty-yard dash, and retains the open-field vision and lateral quickness to be a tremendous force when he has space to work with coming off the edge. Ware can make a pocket collapse through a variety of techniques and, perhaps most importantly, he opens gaps for other defenders by drawing double teams.

We’re still learning the specifics of Spencer’s style and the potential of his contributions. But we know he’s only missed six games in as many seasons. His breakout year coincided nicely with the “prime” of his age, making it logical to think he’s worth his $10.6 million price — if only for this year.

More so than any position on the offensive or defensive line, the defensive end spot is about playing to one’s individual physical advantages. Whether that means being a freight train as opposed to a contortionist on pass plays, or being able to funnel ball carriers to the inside versus beating them to the sidelines on running plays, a good defensive end is a smart defensive end who knows and applies his physical attributes. Superb athleticism is key, no matter whom we’re talking about, but having the savvy and discipline to maximize physical talents is equally important.

Ware and Spencer are seasoned. Their first steps are fast and assured. Should a zone blitz be called, they’re both athletic enough to cover tight ends and running backs in the flats. They’ve got less responsibility as run-stoppers, and based on a report that Kyle Wilber and Tyrone Crawford are dabbling at the position, they’ve got capable backups. Meaning, that ultimately, the starters can be better rested in late-game situations and less banged-up come December.

There’s not much reason to think that barring injury, the Cowboys won’t boast a truly formidable pass rush this year, or that these two contracts aren’t worth every penny. And it’s not just about their individual numbers; it’s what they facilitate for the unit. The tandem of Ware and Spencer can tie up blockers, forcing opponents to run more plays out of multiple tight end and fullback formations. In turn, the Cowboys young secondary can run fewer nickel and dime packages. Considering Dallas lacks a proven nickel corner and need its safeties to improve in pass coverage — and that takes time and reps — having guys who can really hurry a quarterback’s reads and progressions is a big relief.

For all the criticism aimed at Jerry Jones and the Cowboys front office, they’ve secured a legitimate game-changing duo in Ware and Spencer. If they stay healthy and post numbers that approach last year’s production, they can improve a defense dealing with concerns of either depth or experience at every other position. And in the most effective manner: from the grassroots level.

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