Dallas Cowboys: Henry Melton
A few days ago, I was watching practice with former Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton, while the offense was gashing the defense virtually every play.
Newton leaned over and said, “If Butch Davis or Dave Wannstedt was coaching this defense and they had a day like this, he’d tell one of his guys, 'Enough of this, let’s take them to the ground. I want to see somebody get hit.'
Bryant had been talking trash virtually the entire scrimmage, and he had just taken a slant about 80 yards for a touchdown on the previous series. Finally, Wilcox had heard and seen enough.
He delivered a message. Good for him. Next time, delivering it sooner would be even better.
Zack Martin gets matched up with former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton much of the time, and it hasn’t seemed to bother him.
It’s just training camp, but he looks like a player who is going to be a quality starter for a long time.
Coming off a 13-3 season, the Cowboys had two first-round picks and three of the first 61 picks.
They drafted Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins and Martellus Bennett. Neither first-rounder received a second contract with the Cowboys.
They spent a third-round pick on DeMarco Murray to replace Jones, they spent $50 million on Brandon Carr to replace Jenkins and they essentially spent a second-round pick on Gavin Escobar to replace Bennett.
Jones, Jenkins and Bennett didn’t have to be stars, but what if they were? The Cowboys would have more than one playoff win.
The same is true if they had each had been good players like Anthony Spencer. Or really good players like Greg Ellis.
None of them were impact players in Dallas, and the Cowboys have spent a lot of time, money and resources cleaning up that mess.
Dallas might have a similar situation with Morris Claiborne, but it looks like they got it right with Martin.
If the Cowboys can keep Tony Romo upright -- that is a huge if -- this could be the Cowboys’ best offense since the glory days of the early 90s.
In 2007, the Cowboys scored 455 points (28.4 per game) as Tony Romo passed for 4,200 yards with 36 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Terrell Owens had 1,355 yards receiving with 15 touchdowns, and Jason Witten had 1,145 yards with seven touchdowns.
This offense should be able to run it, and the triumvirate of Dez Bryant, Witten and Terrance Williams is better than T.O., Witten and Patrick Crayton.
The key, as it was in 2007, will be the offensive line. If that unit plays to its immense potential this offense will be one of the league’s best -- as long as Romo is in the lineup.
Key number: 257
The Cowboys’ defense was on the field for 1,094 plays last season and 257 of them -- 65 runs and 192 passes -- gained 10 yards or more.
That’s 23.4 percent. Wow.
The 65 runs of 10 plus yards they allowed ranked second only to Chicago’s 84. Philadelphia (202) and Minnesota (200) were the only teams that allowed more pass plays of 10 yards or more.
The Tampa 2 scheme is designed to stop big plays because the safeties and linebackers are supposed to keep plays in front of them.
This is the biggest indictment of Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator. He couldn’t get his players to play the scheme the way it was designed.
Player to Watch: Martez Wilson
The Cowboys are trying to convert Wilson from a linebacker to a defensive end, in part, because they are so desperate for someone, anyone who can rush the passer.
Wilson, who played nine games with three different teams last season, has a quick first-step and he used it to scoot past tackle Jermey Parnell during Sunday’s Blue & White scrimmage. Then he stripped the ball from quarterback Brandon Weeden and returned it from a touchdown.
“One of the things he has that’s just so evident is great quickness and explosiveness off the ball,” coach Jason Garrett said. “The biggest thing for him to do is to learn how to play the position and all the nuances of playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end.”
The Cowboys need pass-rushers and playmakers, which is why he will get every opportunity to make the team.
1. The general thought about the Cowboys’ defense seems to be that it can’t be any worse than it was last year.
Well, it can.
The first few practices have provided no indication this defense will be better than last year’s version that allowed 415.3 yards and 27 points per game. It’s not about a lack of effort, it’s about a lack of talent.
What players worry opposing offensive coordinators? Henry Melton? Brandon Carr? Orlando Scandrick?
Melton has the best pedigree, but he’s fighting through the mental hurdles of the knee injury that cost him 13 games last season. He's still too worried about his knee to play with reckless regard for his body, which is what it takes to succeed at defensive tackle.
And when he did play his best football in Chicago, he had Julius Peppers at defensive end and Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher at linebacker. No one remotely resembling those players starts for the Cowboys.
Talk to enough coaches and staff members at training camp and they’ll tell you the scheme has been tweaked and there’s even more emphasis on teaching than usual because the Cowboys don’t have enough talent to overcome poor technique or mental mistakes.
None of that guarantees a better performance.
2. For the Cowboys to end this wretched four-year streak of not making the playoffs, they must play better in the fourth quarter.
Jason Garrett emphasizes it to the players regularly -- and he’s right.
Last year, the Cowboys led San Diego, Denver, Detroit and Green Bay in the fourth quarter and lost. They had double-digit leads over Detroit and Green Bay.
In the last three years, the Cowboys have been within seven points of their opponent -- ahead or behind -- in 38 of 48 games. Their record in those 38 games is 20-18.
The Cowboys won the fourth quarter seven times last season. They were 6-1 in those games with the only loss coming against Denver.
Their margin for error this season will be slim again, in part, because of the defense. They’ll need to win a lot of fourth quarters to make the playoffs.
3. Garrett and playcaller Scott Linehan insist the Cowboys will run the ball this season.
Before you roll your eyes, understand this season they’re equipped to run it because of an offensive line that has been fortified with three No.1 picks in the last four years.
Teams had no respect for the Cowboys’ running game so they often used seven defenders in coverage and still managed to contain DeMarco Murray. Play coverage this season and the Cowboys should be more than happy to punish teams with their running game -- at least that's what Garrett and Linehan want you to believe.
More importantly, a better running game will make the passing game more efficient because the Cowboys can use play-action passes to generate big plays. Tony Romo attempted just 74 play-action passes last season, one of the league’s lowest totals.
Key number: 1
The Cowboys blitzed 132 times last season, one of the lowest totals in the league, and produced just one interception and nine sacks.
Blitzes are supposed to disrupt the quarterback and force mistakes because the quarterback is making decisions under duress. Opposing quarterbacks had a 117.5 passer rating when the Cowboys blitzed last season.
Look at the personnel and there’s no reason to think the Cowboys will be any more effective blitzing this season. Their defensive line doesn’t have a proven pass-rusher.
The coaching staff has no idea how it's going to create pressure on the quarterback
Player to Watch: Justin Durant
With Sean Lee out for the season with a knee injury, recently signed Rolando McClain trying to earn trust and rookie Anthony Hitchens not ready for a starting role, Durant is making the most of his opportunity.
Durant, who had 24 tackles for the Cowboys last season, has impressed the coaching staff with his grasp of the system and his play so far in training camp.
He’s not going to be a difference-maker, but he’s been a solid player at various times in Jacksonville and Detroit. If he can duplicate that performance here, it would be a big help for the defense
He has yet another hamstring injury -- this is three training camps in a row -- and he’s expected to miss at least a week. That said, who among us will be shocked if he misses more than that.
The Cowboys have liked Johnson’s potential so much that they’ve kept him on the roster, even though the former fourth-round pick has never appeared in a game in his first two seasons.
He’s been good in practice, according to coaches and teammates, but will that be enough?
It’s hard to believe they would keep him for another year, which means paying him for a third year, if he can’t stay healthy and compete for a job. The competition at safety is taut. Every day he misses diminishes his slim odds of making the team.
Yes, he’s been hurt frequently. Too frequently. And the reality is the Cowboys can’t really depend on him because he hasn’t shown an ability to stay on the field.
But his injuries are the result of bad luck -- not poor conditioning or training -- and you can tell he’s miserable about the missed time. He doesn’t have to be at training camp.
He could be rehabbing in Dallas, but he wants to be around his teammates. He’s sitting in on meetings and film sessions. He’s doing everything the other linebackers are doing except playing.
Not many other players would do that.
That’s why the preseason games will be so important to Melton, especially as an interior lineman. He must get used to players falling on his legs or banging into them.
He must get used to the game’s physicality, and he must become adept again at maintaining his balance and staying on his feet when guys around him are falling down.
When he does -- no matter how long it takes -- that’s when he’ll return to being a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle.
Key Number: 71
The Cowboys gave up 71 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season. No team allowed more.
Super Bowl champion Seattle allowed 30. The 12 playoff teams yielded an average of 51.
The Cowboys have no chance to win if they don’t stop the big plays. It makes it too easy for the offense. Improved safety play will help, but the Cowboys must figure out how to rush the passer and remove quarterbacks from their comfort zone.
Player to Watch: Cole Beasley
This is the first time Cole Beasley has ever entered training camp with outside expectations.
He seems ready to meet them.
He caught 39 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns last season. More important, he earned Tony Romo's trust.
On third down, he caught 14 of the 18 passes directed toward him for 146 yards, 11 first downs and a touchdown. When the Cowboys use Beasley in the slot on third downs along with Jason Witten at tight end, it gives Romo a pair of players with good hands who can work underneath and make first downs.
Beasley played only 247 snaps last year. Miles Austin, who had 541 snaps, is gone. Look for Beasley to gobble up a bunch of Austin’s playing time, which means he could easily catch 60 passes this season.
1) It was one play, just about as meaningless as can be, considering it was the first day players wore pads, but Morris Claiborne wanted to establish a tone.
It was the first time since he arrived that we’ve seen that type of feistiness from Claiborne.
Hey, whatever it takes. He’s been the epitome of a bust his first two seasons, allowing 70 completions in 117 attempts with only two interceptions and 13 pass deflections.
For a guy who was supposed to be the best defensive player in the 2012 draft that’s not nearly good enough.
Jason Garrett said he’s improved significantly during the offseason. It’s time for him to take it to the field.
Better secondary play is the fastest way for this defense to improve, since their pass rush remains suspect.
Smith is man-handling the defensive ends on this roster, the way DeMarcus Ware used to destroy tackles, including Smith, during training camp.
Smith is only 23, so don’t be surprised if he signs a deal that’s nine or 10 years long. When he does, it’ll be interesting to see if Dez Bryant can continue to ignore his contract situation and play well.
After all, the club has already taken care of Sean Lee, who was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft. Bryant was the Cowboys’ first-round pick.
3) Kyle Wilber spent his first two seasons bouncing around between outside linebacker in the 3-4 and weakside defensive end.
Injuries last season created some playing time for him at strongside linebacker and the Cowboys suddenly found a player.
Wilber has the strength to hold the edge and consistently force running plays inside, in part because of the time he spent at defensive end, and he made several important plays for the Cowboys last season.
He finished the season with 44 tackles and two sacks, while starting six games.
The Cowboys were tied for 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks. Only five teams had fewer.
Their sack total was 10 fewer than the average 2013 playoff team.
Teams that don’t get many sacks often say they’re overrated. Well, they’re not. Pressure is good, but sacks are a momentum-changer and usually result in a punt at the end of the drive.
You must rush the passer and put quarterbacks under duress, or it’s hard to force turnovers and win games.
The Cowboys are counting on defensive Henry Melton, who missed the last 13 games with a torn ACL, to provide pressure up the middle. He has been a terrific pass-rusher, and they need him to command double teams to help other players get to the quarterback.
Player to Watch: Gavin Escobar
The Cowboys wasted Escobar’s rookie season. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson.
It’s dumb to ask a tight end who should excel at working from the slot and creating mismatches with his size to be the same type of player as Jason Witten.
Escobar can help this team by making plays downfield and giving Tony Romo one more vertical threat.
He caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He can be a playmaker, if Scott Linehan gives him a chance to do it. If not, he’ll be a wasted pick.
On the roster: George Selvie, Terrell McClain, Henry Melton, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer, Jeremy Mincey, Nick Hayden, Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman, Ben Gardner, Amobi Okoye, Martez Wilson, Dartwan Bush, Chris Whaley, Caesar Rayford, Ben Bass
Locks: Selvie, McClain, Melton, Lawrence, Crawford, Mincey
Inside track: Spencer, Hayden, Bishop, Gardner, Coleman, Bass
Need help: Wilson, Coleman, Bush, Whaley, Rayford,Okoye
How many fit? The Cowboys needed 20 defensive linemen last year because of injuries and a revolving door of newcomers who mostly struggled. The Cowboys opened the year last season with 10 defensive linemen on the 53-man roster and ended the year with that many, but the only constants were Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, Edgar Jones, Hayden and Selvie.
The Cowboys gave up their third-round pick to move up for Lawrence, and he will fight with Mincey for a starting spot. He looks the part, but he has a lot to learn. Going against Tyron Smith might be a good thing. The Cowboys are betting that Mincey will be able to find a niche as a quality pass rusher.
Bass is entering his third training camp. He has flashed ability but hasn’t been able to stay healthy in his first two years. Gardner, Bishop and Coleman could be viewed as a part of the future as the line gets the overhaul the offensive line began in 2011. Rayford looks the part but has to have a good preseason to earn a spot. Wilson has some pass rush to him.
Losing Ware and Hatcher and possibly not having Spencer until the seventh game of the season, this group does not have high expectations. Rod Marinelli kind of likes it that way, but he has to somehow coax pass rush out of players who have yet to do it on a consistent basis.
The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster
RUNNING BACKS (4)
The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.
WIDE RECEIVERS (5)
I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Tyron Smith
- Mackenzy Bernadeau
- Travis Frederick
- Zack Martin
- Doug Free
- Ronald Leary
- Jermey Parnell
- Darrion Weems
- Brian Clarke
The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.
DEFENSIVE LINE (10)
- George Selvie
- Henry Melton
- Terrell McClain
- DeMarcus Lawrence
- Jeremy Mincey
- Tyrone Crawford
- Ben Gardner
- Davon Coleman
- Ken Bishop
- Martez Wilson
I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.
Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.
Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.
Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.
Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.
NFL Nation's Todd Archer examines the three biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp:
The health of Romo: Ever since he became the starter in 2006, how Tony Romo goes is how the Cowboys go. He is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, but he was able to do much more this offseason than he did in 2013, when he had a cyst removed. The Cowboys kept Romo out of any competitive drills in the spring in order for him to be fully healthy by the time they got to training camp. Using last year's camp as a guide, Romo did not miss a day of work, and the Cowboys don't believe he will need to be eased into the full practice load this summer either. Because a big part of Romo's game is his ability to move and create in open space, however, they will be cautious if there even hints of more soreness than just the aches and pains of training camp. All offseason, the Cowboys have not expressed any worry about Romo, who turned 34 in April, being able to return to form. He will get his first chance to show it on the practice fields in Oxnard, California. If he can play at a high level -- he had 32 touchdown passes and 10 picks in 15 games last season -- then the Cowboys should be able to contend for a playoff spot in a division that is not as strong as it has been in the past.
Marinelli to the rescue: The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in 2013, and they enter this season without their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware), last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) and their best playmaker (Sean Lee). Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator and will bring subtle changes in coverages, fronts and blitzes, but the core of the 4-3 scheme will remain the same as when that coaching duo was together at Tampa Bay. The Cowboys did not make any splash signings in free agency, but their most important was Henry Melton. If he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and play the way he did under Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have a chance. Marinelli also plans to lean more on cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne in man coverage, but Carr and Claiborne have to play much better in 2014 than they did in 2013. There could be as many as seven new opening day starters on defense this season than in 2013, and it is up to Marinelli to make it work. He had more talent with the Bears when he was running their defense, but the players believe in what he is selling.
Plan of attack: From 2007 through 2012, Jason Garrett called every offensive play. In 2013, Bill Callahan was the playcaller, but he was forced to run Garrett's offense, and there were hiccups. Scott Linehan will be Romo's third playcaller in as many years, and he will have the autonomy Callahan did not have. The Cowboys are not changing schemes, but Linehan has brought on alterations to an offense that struggled on third down in 2013. Linehan leaned toward the pass in his time with the Detroit Lions, but he did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush last season. With the Cowboys, he has a better offensive line, better tight end (Jason Witten) and better running back (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys aren't about to become a run-first team under Linehan, but they need to run more, especially when they have a lead in order to help end games, protect a defense filled with questions and protect Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries. Because Romo did not take any team or seven-on-seven snaps in the spring, they will need to play a little bit of catch-up in what each other likes and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't like in situational football. The Romo-Linehan relationship might be the most important the Cowboys have. They have to make it work.
This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players that will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys’ season.
Best case: He is DeMarcus Ware, circa 2005
Worst case: He is chewed up by left tackles
Rookies at any position need time. Rookie pass-rushers, as we established in the best-case scenario, need time. Lawrence will be tested in training camp by going against Tyron Smith in practice, but there has to be a hope his confidence doesn’t get damaged if Smith chews him up in the summer. If he can hold his own, then maybe that will build his confidence in getting ready to go against tackles like Jason Peters, Joe Staley and Russell Okung. The Cowboys’ approach to the defensive line this offseason has been to bring a lot of numbers. Lawrence, however, can bring the most quality, especially if Henry Melton is not fully healthy. If Lawrence doesn’t work out – or needs the normal amount of time to adjust to the NFL – then the Cowboys will have to go with quantity and throw everybody at the position from Jeremy Mincey to Tyrone Crawford to Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery. The Cowboys don’t need Lawrence to lead the defense in sacks in 2014, but he must contribute more than 3.7 sacks.
This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.
Best-case: The reunion works
Worst-case: He needs more time
Adrian Peterson ruined it for everybody coming back from a torn ACL by being otherworldly in 2012 when he ran for 2,097 yards. He raised the expectations that everybody can come back that fast and that well. Robert Griffin III offered up the other side of the recovery. He was OK last year but not as dynamic as he was a rookie. The general thought is that a player is better the second year after the torn ACL. Players have to make physical and mental recoveries from the injury. Sometimes the mental recovery can be erased quickly with the first few hits. Other times, it takes a while for instincts to return. For the Cowboys, that would not be good because Melton is looked at as one of the kingpins of a re-made defensive line. He cannot be a question up front if the Cowboys want to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. The Cowboys don't need him to be Warren Sapp, but he can't be average either. For Melton, that would not be good because if he needs another year, he will not cash in on that $9 million guarantee and would be a free agent in 2015 coming off two potentially so-so seasons.
This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.
Best case: They lock it down
Worst case: No help from the pass rush
A cornerback's job is a lot easier when the front seven can affect the quarterback. Sacks and pressures are great, but if a quarterback is afraid of the pass rush he will get rid of the ball sooner. That means there is less time for a corner to have to defend and more chances at interceptions. The Cowboys lost their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware) and last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) in the offseason. They replaced them with a rookie second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence) and Henry Melton, who is coming back from a torn ACL. They also added numbers to the position in players like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye but they have questions. Anthony Spencer might not be able to play until the seventh week of the season. Tyrone Crawford is coming back from a torn Achilles and didn't have a sack in his rookie season. Marinelli is not known as a coordinator who brings a lot of pressure. If they can't affect the quarterback, then Carr, Scandrick and Claiborne will have a difficult time staying with receivers.
In it we discuss:
- How Henry Melton kicks in the option of his contract.
- How many tight ends the Cowboys keep.
- Who starts at linebacker?
- The hypothetical to end all hypotheticals.
If you want to read Part 1, click here.
Away we go:
@toddarcher: There is not a magic number necessarily, but if Melton matches his career high of seven sacks, the Cowboys will pick up the final three years, which guarantees him $9 million in 2015. Melton will be the key to this defense. He is the lone known true playmaker on the defensive line. I don't think you can count on another seven-sack season from George Selvie. The others all have something to prove. Melton has the most talent, but he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. For some players it takes a little more time to come back from that injury, but from all accounts Melton's rehab has gone well and he will be on the field to open training camp. The tough call will be whether the Cowboys pick up the option if he has a four- or five-sack season. Would it be worth it to kick in the final three years of the deal if he's just OK? That could be a tough call.
@toddarcher How many tight ends can you possibly keep esp if you keep 5 wide outs. Seems like there needs to be at least 1 odd man out.— Sean McCauley (@seanmac331) July 2, 2014
@toddarcher: They kept four tight ends last season for a spell when they had five receivers. I think the spot comes down to a fourth tight end or a fullback. I know there are a lot of people who love the fullback. Tyler Clutts did a nice job late last season, but I'm not one of those who believe the fullback is necessary. Another factor in how many players are kept at certain positions this year will be quarterback. If Kyle Orton comes back and the Cowboys keep him, then they will keep three quarterbacks for the first time in a couple of years. That chews into a roster spot somewhere else as well. But back to the tight ends: I think they need to get a blocking-type in their top-three, so that would put James Hanna on the bubble. I like Hanna, but I want to see the coaches use his abilities. In his two seasonss, they have yet to get him in space to use that speed.
@toddarcher: To me, it's Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Kyle Wilber. I'm not even sure I can put Rolando McClain on the active roster if I had to do a 53-man breakdown today. Too many questions there. Carter is the clear front-runner at the Will. He did a better job later in the offseason. Durant has the most experience at the Mike, and that is not even that much. But he can be serviceable. Wilber played well last season and carried that over to the spring. He might be their best find, because moving him from defensive end to the Sam last season was really a move of desperation and it worked. I suppose DeVonte Holloman could push his way into the mix at Mike or Sam, but as of today, I'm going with the aforementioned three.
@toddarcher: Unlike Jason Garrett, I will answer a hypothetical even if it does me no good. Under this scenario, I see the Cowboys as a 6-10 team. I'm going on the premise that they get off to a decent start with Tony Romo. And if they want to make the playoffs, they have to get off to a decent start. So let's call a decent start as 3-3. I can see them winning another three -- just don't ask me which games -- because the schedule is tough down the stretch. The last part of the question -- Garrett remaining as coach -- is tough to say. Remember, he got the interim job with Romo hurt and went 5-3. Now he could end his job with Romo hurt. If the Cowboys play hard for him, which they have done, and they are in the games, which they have done, then I could see a chance of him returning in 2015. That doesn't mean it would happen. I'm on record saying Garrett has to make the playoffs to be back in 2015. Man, I hate hypothetical questions. Now I know why coaches don't answer them. But don't worry, we'll still ask them.
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' search for a possible replacement for Sean Lee has led them to Rolando McClain.
In 2010, the Oakland Raiders made McClain the eighth pick of the NFL draft. It never worked out for him with the Raiders for a variety of reasons, including some of his misdeeds. It never worked out for him in two short stints with the Baltimore Ravens that led to him retiring twice.
But he doesn't turn 25 until July 14.
The Cowboys are looking at a low-risk chance for a high-ceiling talent.
“He sounds as excited about football as I've ever heard him,” said McClain's agent, Pat Dye.
Durant is an outside linebacker masking as a middle linebacker even if the coaches believe he can play all three linebacker positions. Holloman started two games at middle linebacker last year as a rookie out of desperation. Hitchens, a fourth-round pick, has a lot to learn.
McClain comes with a better resume than any of them, but his off-field issues -- a number of arrests since being drafted -- are a concern. The fact that he retired twice is a concern, but Dye's words offer encouragement that McClain, who ended Jason Witten's preseason in 2012 with a hit in a exhibition game that led to a lacerated spleen, knows this might be his last chance.
“I see, and Rolando sees, the Dallas situation as a great opportunity given Sean's injury, and you're talking about a great franchise and a great organization,” Dye said. “I've described to any of the clients we've had through the years there -- Emmitt Smith, Dexter Coakley, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Keith Brooking, DeMarco Murray -- that playing for the Cowboys in football is kind of like playing for the Yankees in baseball. Just an iconic franchise. With kind of what he's done going back to his time with the Raiders, I think that all of this has led him to a point where he feels like the game is too important to him to give up. He's just 24 years old. He's very talented. He's very bright. Tough. Competitive. There's a reason he was a top-10 pick at a position that is almost impossible to be a top-10 pick. Hopefully this situation will go smoothly.”
Patience will be required. McClain has not played in a game since November 2012, after he was suspended for two games for conduct detrimental to the team. He has not taken part in a full offseason program. He will have to learn a new defense and a new team.
The Cowboys have taken these sorts of chances on former high draft picks before. In 2005, they signed Marc Colombo, who was the Chicago Bears' first-round pick in 2002, after he suffered a serious knee injury. In 2006, Colombo became the Cowboys' starting right tackle and held the spot through 2010.
Asking that of McClain is too much. He's on just a one-year deal and the Cowboys believe Lee will be 100 percent in 2015, but this is a chance worth taking.
And it falls in line with how the Cowboys have conducted their offseason business, spending wisely if not exorbitantly on guys such as Henry Melton, Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Anthony Spencer and Amobi Okoye.
Harvey Martin, Leon Lett, Charles Haley, Randy White, Too Tall Jones, Bob Lilly, Jim Jeffcoat, DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis are some of the names that have drawn double-teams from opposing offenses.
Ware, the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks at 117, was released in a salary-cap move this spring.
None of these players has the star power of Ware, who was the Cowboys’ No. 1 defensive player for numerous seasons.
A standout pass-rusher is what is missing right now from these 2014 Cowboys.
The man coaching the defensive line, Lett, is 12th on the franchise list with 22.5 career sacks. He was a dominant pass-rusher in his prime and has more name recognition than the current group.
“I think you can do it different ways, four guys just going,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “You need a couple of guys with some juice, somebody has to get doubled. Or you’re trying to get a good guy with a matchup, things like that. We go into camp and I like some of these guys and we've just got to put the pads on and see it.”
Marinelli added that “football as you know, is a show-me game.”
At the end of the season, Marinelli had Everette Brown, Jarius Wynn, Martez Wilson, Frank Kearse, Corvey Irvin and Edgar Jones as backups.
Jason Hatcher and Ware were the leaders of the line.
The defensive line Marinelli was supposed to coach didn’t develop as Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer combined for one played game because of injuries.
Nick Hayden and Selvie morphed into starters.
But in the draft, the Cowboys valued defense, using seven of their eight picks on that side of the ball. Lawrence (6-foot-3, 250 pounds) with big hands and long arms, is seen as a potential replacement for Ware.
Ben Gardner (6-4, 262), a seventh-round pick from Stanford, impressed the scouts and coaches with his work in college.
Another seventh-round pick, Ken Bishop (6-0, 301), from Northern Illinois, might have a future at the one-technique.
In free agency, the Cowboys added Terrell McClain at defensive tackle and Jeremy Mincey at end. Adding quality depth and youth were the goals as Dallas worked to fix the pass rush after Ware departed for Denver.
The standouts of the offseason moves are Melton and Lawrence.
Melton reached the Pro Bowl in 2012 after compiling six sacks, two forced fumbles and creating havoc for Marinelli’s defense in Chicago.
Marinelli left for Dallas and Melton was hurt just three games into the 2013 season. They are reunited and hope to build on their 2012 success.
Lawrence, though not a first-round pick, might have the most impact from the draft class.
“He’s got the movement,” Marinelli said. “I think he’s really tough and he’s got enough speed out there and he works. I like his work habits, now that’s Step 1, and camp starts is Step 2.”
No star power.
Maybe in time the Cowboys will have it from a pass-rusher.
As Marinelli says, Step 2 is training camp and we get to find out.
The Cowboys swapped out defensive coordinators, bringing in Rod Marinelli for Monte Kiffin. They have swapped out players, cutting DeMarcus Ware and losing Jason Hatcher. They lost their best defender, Sean Lee, to a knee injury in May. Their highest-profile free-agent signing, Henry Melton, has not taken a team snap as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The biggest re-signing, Anthony Spencer, might not be able to take a snap in training camp as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery.
Despite the historic defensive deficiencies in 2013, the Cowboys were a Week 17 win away from making the playoffs.
With just a slight improvement on defense, the Cowboys believe they can contend for the postseason.
"I agree," executive vice president Stephen Jones said, "and I think we're better on offense than we were last year."
The Cowboys averaged 27.4 points per game last year, which was fifth-most in the league, but they averaged only 341.1 yards per game, which was 16th. They struggled on third down, converting just 35 percent, and they could not finish games by running the ball or chose not to attempt to run the ball.
Jones believes the offense has a chance to be great in 2014.
"Obviously we believe Tony Romo is an elite quarterback and you put the supporting cast with him, that's why picked Zack Martin," Jones said. "I think we're better in the offensive line and you'd hope so if you spent the 16th pick in the draft on one of the better offensive lineman in the draft. You'd like to hope you're better. And we were pretty good last year and I think we'll move that up to where you say, ‘Hey, we've got a chance to have an elite offense.'"
The pieces are there. Romo threw 31 touchdown passes and was intercepted just 10 times in 15 games. Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and Tyron Smith went to the Pro Bowl. With Martin, the Cowboys have three first-round picks on the line with Smith and Travis Frederick. Wide receiver Terrance Williams proved he could be a playmaker last year and will take over for Miles Austin.
The Cowboys will break in their third playcaller in as many years in Scott Linehan after Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan, but Jones likes the freshness Linehan will bring to the offense. The Cowboys are not overhauling the system, but adding Linehan's wrinkles.
"I think he brings a different look," Jones said. "After a while when it's been Jason's offense and Bill ran Jason's offense and called the plays in Jason's offense but at the end of the day we'd been doing that for a while. I think now to add wrinkles and add things to it, I don't think it's going to be, when people get ready to play us, that they know exactly what to expect now."
The Dallas Cowboys defense will be without DeMarcus Ware (offseason release), Jason Hatcher (free-agent defection) and Sean Lee (torn anterior cruciate ligament), but the owner and general manager sees a defense that will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013 when it finished last in the league in yards allowed.
"Because we were so bad last year, there's no place but up," Jones said.
So there is that. The Cowboys made modest moves in free agency with the signings of Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye. They re-signed Anthony Spencer, who is not likely to be ready to start training camp as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery. They drafted DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round.
Mostly they are hoping for serious improvement from within.
The Cowboys finished 19th overall in defense in 2012. Injuries ravaged the defense by the end of the season, but that did not save Rob Ryan's job.
Last year the Cowboys made a scheme change, switching from the 3-4 under Ryan to the 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin. They did not make serious personnel additions (Will Allen, Justin Durant) and were hoping not only for improvement from within but scheme flexibility from players drafted to play in Bill Parcells' or Wade Phillips' 3-4.
It seemed as if the Cowboys thought 2013 would be better because it could not be worse than it was at the end of 2012, but Jones disagreed with the assessment.
"I can say it this year, we are better right now," Jones said. "And I think better on the field. We're certainly better on paper than we were at the end of the season last year. Not on paper at the beginning of the season last year, but on paper right now relative to how we ended up last year."