Shifting Schemes: Dallas Cowboys Switch to 4-3
For as long as I can remember, there were three things you could always count on – death, taxes and the Cowboys running a 3-4 defense. OK, maybe it’s only been since 2004. Well, 2013 brings a shift in Big D, as the firing of Rex Ryan and hiring of Monte Kiffin has brought on the scheme change. Lauded as one of the finest defensive minds and father of the “Tampa-2” defensive scheme, Kiffin is ushering in a shift to an aggressive 4-3 scheme. So what does this mean for their Cowboys IDPs?
The defensive line will be one of the biggest areas of question with the scheme change. In past seasons, Cowboys defensive linemen have been mostly an afterthought in IDP leagues. Last season, Jason Hatcher was the only defensive lineman to crack a top 60 in fantasy points. Jay Ratliff has been a solid nose tackle, but his numbers have been in decline since his career year in 2008 (51 tackles/7.5 sacks). Injuries were a big issue in 2012, as Ratliff and Kenyon Coleman dealt with various ailments, causing them to miss six and nine games, respectively.
The most notable additions to the defensive line will be DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. As a rush linebacker, Ware has been quite the menacing sight for quarterbacks, but he’ll now take on a three-point stance as a hand-in-the-dirt defensive lineman. I am not at all worried about Ware’s transition. Cameron Wake made the same transition last season, and all he did was record 17 sacks and grade out as PFF’s best 4-3 DE. Ware has been a more prolific sack artist, as just last year he got to the quarterback on 13 percent of his pass-rush snaps, notching 14 sacks. As a pass rusher who can get to the quarterback any time he wants, the move to defensive lineman actually improves his IDP stock. As a linebacker who depended on big plays for fantasy production, he wouldn’t register even in the top 60 of LB scoring. This transition automatically makes him a top 10-15 DL.
The Cowboys slapped Anthony Spencer with the franchise tag, and even though Dallas says they won’t trade him, it’s still a possibility. While it’s a good thing that Ware has moved, I don’t think Spencer will find that same success. I believe he would’ve been better served remaining outside, playing opposite Bruce Carter. Spencer’s more skilled at stopping the run and better in coverage. His size isn’t suited for the position either. Spencer enjoyed a career year last season, and if he remains in Dallas, it’ll be interesting to see how effective he’ll be with his hand in the dirt. I wouldn’t overpay for last season’s numbers, however.
Jay Ratliff is coming off a season littered with injuries. He missed the first four games with a foot and ankle injury, and a groin injury caused him to miss the remainder of the year after appearing in six games. The move might be good for him, as he’ll see less double teams on the interior. Ratliff could beat single teams in pass rush, giving him some value in IDP leagues that reward for big plays or play the defensive tackle position. Ratliff has graded as one of the better interior defensive linemen, especially for his pass-rushing skills, so this move could give him some sleeper value in those DT-required leagues. But keep an eye on his health.
One of the wild cards with this defensive line is going to be Tyrone Crawford, as he’s built for the scheme and was drafted with that thought in mind. As a 3-4 end in 2012, he appeared in 303 snaps, but managed a hit or pressure on just 5 percent of his pass-rush snaps. If Spencer remains with the team, Crawford’s IDP value will be limited. His progression through the offseason is something to monitor, especially if Dallas moves Spencer.
It’s assumed that Sean Lee will be the MIKE in the 4-3, which will certainly do nothing to hinder his IDP value heading into 2013. In just a few short seasons, Lee is already producing elite-level stats as 3-4 ILB. Until a toe injury landed him on IR after just six games in 2012, Lee had produced 58 tackles, resulting in a 19.1 percent tackle frequency. As the MIKE, Lee will be able to use his sideline-to-sideline speed and play the entire field. Lee is an LB1, but make sure to have a nice stable of linebackers on your roster. He has seen his share of injuries, as he dealt with a dislocated wrist and hamstring injury in 2011, in addition to the toe last year. As long as he can stay on the field for a full 16, LB1 numbers are likely.
Bruce Carter should also see an increase in his IDP value, as he’ll man the weak side in Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense. Carter is a perfect fit for this defense; with his range and closing speed, ballcarriers will have a hard time getting past him. In 11 games last season, Carter racked up 70 tackles in 625 defensive snaps. He also had six tackles for a loss. Carter doesn’t rush the passer often (33 rush snaps), but that could change in the hands of Kiffin. Like Lee, Carter needs to remain healthy. But if he continues to develop his all-around game, Carter could flirt with LB2 numbers.
It remains to be seen what Dallas is going to do at the opposite OLB spot. The Cowboys cut Dan Connor on March 11 after he refused to take a pay cut. Kyle Wilber was drafted as a SAM linebacker, but it’s been reported that he could be a backup on the defensive line. At this point, the SAM linebacker is one to avoid in Dallas.
Much like Dallas’s defensive line, their secondary hasn’t produced much IDP fruit in seasons past. Barry Church was looking like an IDP sleeper heading into 2012, but he only played in three games before suffering an Achilles’ injury. Church is ahead of schedule and is running around. He’s expected to run with Matt Johnson in training camp and battle for the strong safety spot. Speaking of Johnson, he missed his rookie year with hamstring injuries. At the very least, the safety spot is one that’s going to need to be watched over the course of the offseason.
Brandon Carr was brought in as a free agent in 2012, but has already needed to restructure his contract. Carr was just average, as he was targeted 87 times, making 53 tackles, picking off three passes and defending 11 passes (his lowest number since 2008). His role won’t change in the 4-3, and the shift could benefit him with the Cowboys likely running with more man-to-man coverage. However, he could also see more time at the line of scrimmage to make plays in stopping the run, as is typical in the Tampa-2. I’m not expecting too much of an uptick in numbers, but he makes for a decent target in leagues requiring a cornerback, as he has CB2 upside.
Morris Claiborne made adjustments during his rookie year and finished with a positive grade in his pass coverage. Receivers caught nearly 70 percent of passes thrown into Claiborne’s coverage, but he did have seven games allowing 60 percent or less of passes to be completed. From an IDP standpoint, he didn’t stand out, producing just 55 tackles and one pick. Claiborne’s ascension in the NFL will definitely hinder his ability to adapt to the new defense. Like Carr, he’ll be asked to play more physical and near the line of scrimmage.
It’s important to keep in mind that all of this remains fluid, as free agency and the NFL Draft can definitely change things. Keep it bookmarked to PFF’s IDP page for all of the updates and analysis of any offseason moves.
Mike Woellert is a Senior Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow Mike on Twitter@PFF_MWoellert