When the Dallas Cowboys were thinking about moving to the 4-3 defense, they figured Jason Hatcher could make the conversion from defensive end to defensive tackle.
But maybe they didn’t figure he could do it this well.
“It’s great to see because he’s played a few years in this league,” coach Jason Garrett said of the eight-year veteran. “To see a guy who has his experience continue to get better because of the work that he puts in in the off-season, on the practice field — he just grows before your eyes.”
But don’t ask Hatcher anymore if he can make the transition or if it’s late in his career to do that. He’ll roll his eyes.
“It’s been a good transition for me,” he said. “I really can’t wait for that question to die down. I’ve been asked that over and over again. You guys are starting to sound like parrots.”
The transition by Hatcher is going to matter for the Cowboys this year.
He is playing the “3-technique,” or pass-rushing, defensive tackle spot in the Tampa 2 defense brought in by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.
His job is to get upfield and do it fast by beating the guard in front of him. On the way to the passer, he should make a tackle if the ball is coming to him.
“We’re not playing heavy on blocks,” Marinelli said. “We’re upfield, penetrating, redirecting with speed and athleticism. That’s why I’m always talking we need guys who can move to play this system.”
That’s what the Cowboys learned about Hatcher in this training camp.
Hatcher has shown he can rush the passer. He has 8.5 sacks over the past two seasons, but that was from defensive end. The work in pads in training camp was going to show the Cowboys whether the 6-foot-6 Hatcher, their tallest defensive lineman, could move well enough, and get low enough, to get an edge on the player in front of him.
The Cowboys got their answer last week. In his first preseason action, Hatcher got a hand on the ball against Oakland Raiders quarterback Matt Flynn and produced a turnover.
“Very athletic guy. Very good feet, good movement, loose in the hips, all those things,” Marinelli said. “Good solid rush there, too. Hit that edge. Did what he was supposed to do.”
Hatcher smiled about it.
“Yeah, I knocked it out. Just a great play,” he said. “We played well together for the first four plays that we played. But I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s going to look when we play 30 or 40 plays.”
The Cowboys also have discovered they have another leader in Hatcher. He has been one of the most vocal players in camp. One day, he called out the third-team defense for not standing up to running back Joseph Randle. He’s gotten onto the first-teamers, too.
“Watch him out there,” Garrett said. “He’s certainly a leader for our football team.”
Hatcher is convinced he still has a long way to go.
“I’m still working on some habits I’ve got to break,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll get high. I’ve got to focus on staying low all four quarters.”
The first run-through in live action at defensive tackle for Hatcher pleased the Cowboys. But they continue to think about him at other spots along the defensive line. He was an end in the 3-4 last year, and he could play either the 3-technique or 1-technique this year and maybe play end in a pinch.
“He’s always had a lot of value in our eyes,” Garrett said. “He’s just a darn good football player. If he played one spot, he’d have a lot of value for us. Certainly with the defensive line, you want to be able to rotate guys. You want to be able to absorb injuries. Having depth there and having position flex there certainly helps.”
Hatcher has been flexible about the position he plays. He doesn’t even care how many snaps he takes at this position or that.
“I don’t know why you guys are so worried about that,” he said. “Let us play football, man. I don’t care. I just want to line up and play. I’m happy. I’m healthy. I thank God I’m here.”