With the vast majority of the Dallas Cowboy universe still focused on the 2012 NFL Draft..."/> With the vast majority of the Dallas Cowboy universe still focused on the 2012 NFL Draft..."/>

Set for a Breakout Season: Sean Lissemore


With the vast majority of the Dallas Cowboy universe still focused on the 2012 NFL Draft and all the rookie free agents, I decided to review some of the games from last year and see which players showed signs of being able to make a more significant contribution to the Dallas Cowboys.  You can read about the previous players profiled (Victor Butler and Raymond Radway) here.

This week we will look at Sean Lissemore.  He was selected in the 7th round (234th pick) of the 2010 NFL Draft.

One of the things that has stood out about Lissemore since he entered the NFL Draft is his almost freakish athleticism for a man his size.  He is 6’4” and over 300 lbs., yet he has a 30 inch vertical jump and ran 4.8 in the 40.  He was a track star in high school; he ran the 100 meter in 11.2 seconds.  Many have described him as a DT with LB speed.  Given these raw skills, it should only be a matter of time, effort, coaching, and experience until Lissemore is ready to become a solid starter for the Dallas Cowboys.

Lissemore didn’t see much action as a rookie, but he played in all 16 games in 2011. His performance, beginning early in the season, earned him considerable playing time last year.

Lissemore played 283 snaps in 2011.  In comparison, Jay Ratliff played 750, but Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears, and Kenyon Coleman all logged between 400-425 snaps.

1.  If you look at what Lissemore, who is now just 24, did last year in limited opportunities, add in a full-offseason for conditioning, training, and learning Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan’s system, it seems natural that he will be a better and more complete football player this season.

According to ProFootballFocus’ advanced stats, Sean Lissemore was tied for 3rd on the team with Sean Lee with an overall defensive rating of 13.8 in 2011.  Only Demarcus Ware (32.5) and Jay Ratliff (18.6) graded out better. Somewhat surprisingly, Lissemore graded out much better against the run (14.3), than he did as a pass-rusher (0.2). A full explanation of ProFootballFocus grades can be found here.

Lissemore’s third place ranking obviously has to be viewed with the understanding that he played fewer snaps than many of the other defenders, and he therefore was likely used in specific situations that were intended to capitalize on his strengths as a defender.

Lissemore’s impressive statistics and rating suggest that Rob Ryan has already figured out effective ways to use him.  As he improves and learns the intricacies of Ryan’s system, it is presumable that Ryan will find new ways to effectively use Lissemore.

2.  Many people who follow the NFL believed that the Dallas Cowboys were going to draft or sign a rookie DT that would have the potential to man the traditional NT position in Rob Ryan’s 3-4.  You can read a good explanation of why the behometh NT is so important to the 3-4, and how the vast majority of successful 3-4 defenses have a mammoth NT. 

The Cowboys didn’t draft a NT, nor did they sign one.

Perhaps the reason that Jerry Jones didn’t draft a NT is because Rob Ryan knows that Sean Lissemore was stellar against the run last year, and therefore he has the ability to man the NT position on some running downs to help Jay Ratliff stay fresh.  Lissemore played 119 snaps against the run and 164 against the pass. He had 19 solo tackles, 9 assists, and 2 sacks.  That means Lissemore made a solo tackle on one out of every six or seven times the opponent tried to run the ball (assuming that most of his tackles came on running plays).

Stephen Jones acknowledged this off-season that Jay Ratliff got worn down last year.  Stephen’s comments about Ratliff were interesting because they marked a significant departure from what we have heard from the Cowboys front office regarding Jay Ratliff and the NT position for the past 4 or 5 years. We have always heard that Ratliff was the NT, and they had no intention of even considering moving him; when we heard about his decline in production in 2010, it was always framed in reference to an injury, as opposed to just wearing down as a natural part of the NFL season.

The Dallas Cowboys’ DLine coach, Brian Baker, made the plan even more explicit when he said:

"“He will take all the third downs unless somebody proves they’re a better pass rusher inside. Until that happens, if he’s getting a little worn [down] we’ll save him for third down.”"

It certainly sounds like the DL coach knows he has to use Jay Ratliff more sparingly if he is going to continue to play at NT.  Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent are the only reasonable explanation for the Cowboys’ decision to not acquire a NT.

Everything from the Cowboys organization suggests that they know that Ratliff would be a better player if they had someone that could chew up space and stop the run on 1st down. Sean Lissemore will have the opportunity in camp and the preseason to demonstrate that he can play 1st down on a regular basis.

One of the keys to having a breakout season is having the skills to fulfill a major need for the team.  The Cowboys need a NT who can hold the point of attack on running plays so that Ratliff can be fresher on 3rd downs.

3.  Lissemore is versatile enough to play DE in some packages and/or replace one of the DE’s and play DT beside Ratliff when the Cowboys line-up in more of a 4-3 alignment.

If Rob Ryan continues to use a 4-3 alignment with the same frequency as last season (about 35% of the snaps), Lissemore should see increased playing time as the additional tackle.  In fact, the emergence of Lissemore coupled with the drafting of DE Tyrone Crawford could  spell the end for one of the veteran DE’s already on the roster.

In August 2010, Lissemore signed a four-year, $1.839 million contract. The deal included a $48,600 signing bonus. He will make $540,000 in 2012, and $575,000 in 2013, and become a free agent in 2014.

In July 2011, Kenyon Coleman signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract. The deal included a $700,000 signing bonus. He is scheduled to make $1.9 million in 2012 and become a free agent in 2013.

Also in July 2011, Marcus Spears signed a five-year, $19.2 million contract. The deal contained $4.2 million guaranteed, including a $3.5 million signing bonus. Despite the total over 5 years, Spears in only scheduled to make $2 million in 2012.

In August 2011, Jason Hatcher signed a three-year, $6 million contract, including a $2.5 million signing bonus.  He will make $1.5 million in 2012 and $2 million in 2013 before becoming a free agent in 2014.

While none of the contracts are huge, all of the DE’s are making considerably more money than Lissemore. Almost as important is the fact that they are all much older than Lissemore. Spears is 29 (7 seasons in the NFL); Coleman is 33 (10 NFL seasons); and Jason Hatcher is 29 (6 seasons).  Hatcher had the best season of the three in 2011; he graded out better according to ProFootballFocus and he was far more effective at rushing the QB.  Hatcher had 5 sacks and 6 QB hits, while both Spears and Coleman each had only 1 sack and 1 QB hit.

Although Hatcher is about the same age as Spears, Hatcher has far fewer starts and has played far fewer snaps over his career, which means that his body has not been subjected to the same pounding. The other thing about Hatcher is that he still seems to be improving from year to year.

It would not be surprising to see one of the DE’s released before the start of the season, but it would be shocking if it was Jason Hatcher.  He could also be poised for a breakout season.

4.  Sean Lissemore is extremely versatile; he can play all three DL positions in the 3-4.  Last season, he played at RE, LE, and NT.  As discussed above, he also played DT in the 4-3. Lissemore’s unique ability to play all the positions on the DL will likely translate into more playing time for him.  More importantly, it means there is a variety of different ways that Rob Ryan can utilize his specific talents.

When comparing Lissemore’s ProFootballFocus grades for each position, there is no significant difference in his grades when he switches from position to position.  He grades out just as well at NT as he does at RE or LE.

Lissemore’s value as a journeyman substitute along the DL means that he will not likely claim one of the starting jobs, but instead he will continue to be used in a variety of different packages all over the DL.  The value of having a DT who can play every position on the DL effectively is enormous: imagine an an effective backup OT who could also play center.

5.  The benefits of Jerry Jones’ and Jason Garrett’s decision to hire Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Woicik have been considered in a previous post.  Players like Sean Lissemore may benefit the most from the training and conditioning regimen imposed by Woicik because they are young, and while not ‘still growing’, are still adding mass to their bodies.  Similarly, young players, especially from small colleges, are often still developing the strength and endurance required to play in the NFL.

Sean Lissemore is going to have a much bigger impact on the Dallas Cowboys defense in 2012.  He will be a better player.  He should get many more opportunities to play this season because of the need to rest Jay Ratliff, his versatility, and the level of his play compared to some aging veterans who are earning more money. Lissemore played excellent in his limited role last season – if he improves and gets more chances to play, he will have a breakout season for the Dallas Cowboys in 2012.

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