Inside Out?

IRVING, Tex. - The mini-camps Wade Phillips runs are like those run by most NFL coaches — they are sessions that incorporate drills designed to teach. The players don't wear pads, and the physical nature of camp is limited to a lot of pushing and shoving — there isn't any significant hitting. But...

But the camps also are used to try, or at least consider, position changes. One subtle move might be more ominous for another player than it would initially appear.

When he was drafted in 2005, Jay Ratliff was a defensive end who didn't even interrupt the yuk-fest that is ESPN's coverage of the late rounds of the league's annual meat market. While Ron Jaworski and Suzy Kolber prattled on, Ratliff was nothing more than a name wiggling across the bottom of the screen.

It's not that Ratliff was without talent. But he was the third defensive end Dallas chose that year, following first-rounder Marcus Spears and fourth-rounder Chris Canty (not to mention fellow first-rounder DeMarcus Ware, who can put his hand down and rush the passer from a defensive end spot when needed).

The Cowboys had tried to shore up their defense in a single draft. Ware and Spears were tagged as future building blocks, while Canty was acknowledged as a first-round talent who had slipped three rounds because of off-the-field circumstances.

Given the crowd at defensive end, not to mention the need for a boost on the interior of the defensive line, then-coach Bill Parcells slid Ratliff inside to defensive tackle, a position he really took over last year when starter Jason Ferguson was lost for the year. Ratliff signed a long-term contract extension and added a few pounds, and took up residence in the middle of the defensive front.

But things changed up front. Ratliff started to come into his own as an interior player. Canty emerged as the team's most talented defensive lineman. Jerry Jones signed Chicago castoff Tank Johnson, who happened to play Ratliff's defensive tackle spot.

Johnson contributed little after his suspension was lifted as he worked to become acclimated to his new team. But he has considerable promise, and Jones doesn't sign marquee players to sit on the bench. Johnson is probably the strongest defensive lineman on the team, with his tree-trunk biceps, and likely is the best-suited to anchor the middle of the Dallas defensive line.

Fast-forward back to this year's veteran mini-camp last week in Valley Ranch. Johnson got more playing time than he did after joining the team in mid-season last year … and Ratliff slipped out to left defensive end on occasion — Spears' spot.

When Spears was drafted out of LSU in the 2005 draft, he was seen as a foundation defensive end, a poor man's Michael Strahan. He has an enormous frame, and with a little physical maturity, he was seen as a guy around whom an entire defense could be built.

But that hasn't happened. He is not without value — he registered 30 tackles and a pair of sacks in 2007 — but his tackles were the fewest in his three NFL seasons, and not nearly enough for someone carrying first-round expectations … or a first-round salary.

Spears needs to be leery of fast-improving defensive end Jason Hatcher, but he also needs to be aware of the development of Johnson. While he was the highest-drafted of the three defensive ends Dallas chose in 2005, he might well be third, or even fourth, on the team's pecking order at the position.

Ratliff got his long-term deal, so he's not going anywhere, and negotiations are underway to lock up Canty. If Hatcher continues to improve and Johnson takes over in the middle, Ratliff might well be shoved out to defensive end. If so, Spears can still contribute, to be sure, but his cost will be factored in. It's no secret that former Dallas coach and current Miami Dolphins boss Bill Parcells is a fan of Spears'.

Does that mean he might try to pry Spears away from Dallas? That's hard to say. But what if Jason Taylor creates such a headache — or lucks into a deal — that Miami actually can trade him? Spears then would be a perfect fit in Miami, and the Dolphins likely would look into acquiring him.

Dallas, to be sure, would not give Spears away, because the Cowboys certainly don't have to trade him if suitable compensation is not offered. But if a crowd at a position, or finances, dictates that a defensive lineman leaves Dallas, it might well be Spears — not Ratliff — who finds himself getting pushed out of town by a Tank. Chances are none of them leaves, but if he slides outside, it's Ratliff who joins Canty at the top of the defensive ends heap when it comes to job security.

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