Dallas Cowboys: J.J. Wilcox

5 Plays that shaped the game

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
2:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas - There were 119 plays in the Cowboys’ 31-21 win over the New York Giants. They weren’t all created equal. It’s never that way. Touchdowns and turnovers get most of the attention, but who wins or loses is often determined by plays that get lost in shadows of those that command the most attention.

Here’s a look at five plays that shaped the Cowboys’ win:

Murray
Play: DeMarco Murray run
Situation: Third-and-1 from Dallas 29
Score: Dallas leads, 28-21
Time: 4:04 left in fourth quarter

Taylor's Take: The Cowboys knew they needed a couple of first downs or there was a good chance the Giants would drive for the game-tying touchdown. The Cowboys lined up in a three-tight end formation and ran right behind them, Jason Witten, James Hanna and Gavin Escobar each won their individual battles and Murray ran over Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for the first down. The Cowboys took 4:59 off the clock before kicking a field goal that clinched the win.

Play: Jason Pierre-Paul sack
Situation: Second-and-5 from Dallas 25
Score: Tied, 0-0
Time: 14:28 left in third quarter

Taylor's Take: Few things are worse -- it has been reinforced this season -- than a first quarter turnover that gives an opponent early momentum. Romo was trying to throw a checkdown pass to Murray, when he saw a Giants’ player in that area. When he pulled the ball back, Romo lost control of it. He juggled it several times and finally corralled it just as Jason Pierre-Paul sacked him. Lose a fumble right then and the Giants almost certainly would have taken an early lead.

McClain
Play: Terrell McClain tackle
Situation: First-and-10 from Dallas 35
Score: Tied, 14-14
Time: 11:44 left in third quarter

Taylor's Take: On their first possession of the third quarter, the Giants were driving to take the lead. They converted two third downs and had moved to the Dallas 35, when Terrell McClain made his biggest play of the season. McClain sliced through the line of scrimmage and drilled running back Andre Williams for a three-yard loss. He stripped the ball in the process, but Williams was ruled down because his forward progress had been stopped. That hit energized the Cowboys’ defense, and the Giants punted after failing to convert a third-and-18.

Play: J.J. Wilcox pass interference penalty
Situation: Fourth-and-1 from Dallas 38
Score: Dallas leads, 7-0
Time: 12:50 left in second quarter

Taylor's Take: New York coach Tom Coughlin was already feeling desperate, which is why he went for it this early in the game. The Giants called a play-action pass and Dallas covered it perfectly. Barry Church was behind tight end Daniel Fells and J.J. Wilcox was perfectly positioned in front of him. But Wilcox didn’t trust his coverage, so he put his hands on Fells drawing a penalty and giving the Giants a first down. Four plays later, the Giants tied the score.

Play: Rueben Randle penalty
Situation: First-and-10 from Dallas 40
Score: Dallas leads, 21-14
Time: 3:10 left in third quarter

Taylor's Take: The Cowboys had just taken the lead, and the Giants were driving once again to tie the score. The Giants wanted a bubble screen to Preston Parker, but Orlando Scandrick recognized it so quickly that Randle had no choice but to hold him because he was going to blow the play up. The penalty made first-and-20, thwarting the Giants' drive.
J.J. Wilcox had only five tackles against the Houston Texans, but it was one of the better games he's played with the Dallas Cowboys.

Wilcox
He was aggressive making tackles near the line of scrimmage against the run, and he played well in the secondary, keeping receivers in front of him and making forceful tackles when they caught the ball.

Wilcox didn't start playing safety until his senior year at Georgia Southern, so clearly he's still learning the nuances of the game. That's a lot to ask at the NFL level.

Although it's his first season as a full-time starter, Wilcox said he needs to play better.

"Tick, tick, tick, the clock is moving. It's time," Wilcox said. "I need to be more of an impact player and make more plays. I'm learning, but this is the NFL. You have to make plays,"

Jason Garrett has always liked Wilcox's physical play and his approach to his craft. He's also seen Wilcox struggle, at times, in coverage.

Against Houston, Garrett said Wilcox played with more confidence.

"He did some really good things in the game. He showed up," Garrett said. "I thought he was physical. He was active in space and playing downhill in the run game. He was just around the ball a lot. I thought you felt his presence."

Dallas Cowboys' pass rush is lacking

October, 7, 2014
Oct 7
11:15
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense has been good at times this season but it needs improvement.

Overall, it ranks eighth in scoring defense (20.6) and is tied for 10th with 10 turnovers.

However, the Cowboys' pass rush, something that was a concern going into the season, is lacking.

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The Cowboys have just five sacks, tied for 26th in the NFL and their blitz frequency on pass plays is among the lowest in the NFL. On third-down plays, the Cowboys have blitzed just four times, employing more defenders to drop back into coverage than rush the passer.

Dallas has blitzed more times on second down, 22 times, than any other down, this season.

The offseason additions of defensive tackle Henry Melton and Terrell McClain, who has been hampered by nagging injuries, and the absence of end Anthony Spencer, has hampered the pass rush somewhat.

The solid play of the linebackers, Rolando McClain and Justin Durant, have been considered a positive sign, likewise the secondary led by the safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox.

Yet, pressuring the pocket is the key to any defense's success.

"Obviously we haven't had huge sack numbers, but I do think we've affected the quarterback," coach Jason Garrett said. "I think that was the case a little bit (Sunday vs. Houston) as well. We didn't have the big dramatic losses, but we were around them, trying to make him feel uncomfortable. We use the word effect a lot, you got to effect the quarterback. You effect with individual pass rush, we effect with dogs and blitzes that you would bring. I think at different times we were able to do that, force (Houston quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick) to hurry a throw, maybe throw from an uncomfortable position. I think we were able to do that throughout the game even though we didn't have the sacks."
Three thoughts on Day 12 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

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.'

Wilcox
Well, J.J. Wilcox took it upon himself to drill Dez Bryant during Sunday’s Blue and White scrimmage. Less than a minute later, punches were being thrown.

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.

Martin
That is good because it’s devastating when a franchise misses on a first-round pick. One of the biggest reasons the Cowboys have only one playoff win since 1996 is they missed on a pair of first-round picks in 2008.

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.

Training Camp Battles: Safety

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
12:00
PM ET
With the start of training camp coming next week, we review the five biggest position battles with the Dallas Cowboys. Our series concludes today.

Safety

The favorite: J.J. Wilcox

The contenders: Matt Johnson, Jeff Heath and Jakar Hamilton

Outlook: Wilcox took over the starting job early in the 2013 season and held it until a knee injury cost him three games in the middle of the season. Heath took over the spot and was overmatched in too many games, particularly in pass coverage. Wilcox never regained the starting job but in offseason workouts, he worked with the first-team defense. Johnson hasn’t played in two seasons due to a variety of injuries and missed offseason workouts this spring with hamstring troubles. Johnson's time with the Cowboys is running out. Hamilton has some range and could steal a roster spot. The key for any of these safeties is special teams play and this is where Hamilton and maybe Heath come in.

Who wins?: Wilcox is the better safety here because he's a good tackler and has improved in pass coverage. The Cowboys like their safeties to be interchangeable, but Wilcox will perform more at the free safety position.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
11:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

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)

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)

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.

LINEBACKER (7)

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.

CORNERBACK (5)


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.

SAFETY (5)

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.

SPECIALISTS (3)


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.

Church chimes in on D's question marks

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
3:00
PM ET
Safety Barry Church is as close as it comes to a sure thing on a Dallas Cowboys’ defense that has a whole bunch of question marks.

What does Church expect from some of the most prominent question marks around him? He provided his answers during a Tuesday appearance on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM.

Church
 On J.J. Wilcox: “Just an explosive playmaker. Those are the words that come to my mind when I think of him. This whole offseason, he was all over the place -- getting interceptions, locking up tight ends -- so I feel like he’s going to be a big playmaker for us on the back end. I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table this season.”

On Bruce Carter: “Definitely with the loss of Sean Lee, it’s time for him to step up and be that focal point of the defense, and I feel like he’ll be able to do that. He’s making a lot of the checks out there. He’s the head of the huddle for the defense, so I feel like this offseason really generated a lot of confidence for him, and I feel like going into the season that’s going to work for him. He’s going to get better and better as the season progresses.”

On Morris Claiborne: “To me, he’s had the best offseason out of anybody in our secondary and anybody on our defense. He’s turned his body around. He’s completely focused. Before, I would have to give him the check for the defense a couple of times. Now, I’m just like, ‘Boom, here’s the call,’ and he’s ready to roll. ... Now you’re starting to see some of the productivity he can bring to our defense.”

On Brandon Carr: “I expect him to live up to that contract, and I know he will. He’s been putting in a lot of work this offseason. Me and him especially have working on our footwork drills, man-to-man drills and lifting together and running together. I feel like he’s got just a whole new focus going into this season. He wants to, like he said earlier in one of his interviews, take over the league. I feel like he can be one of those top-3 corners in the NFL. I feel like he’ll show everybody this year. I definitely have the faith in him to live up to that contract, and I know he will.”

On DeMarcus Lawrence: “Definitely, it’ll take some time. DeMarcus Ware, he’s a one-of-a-kind guy. It’s definitely going to take more than one year to replace a guy like that, but DeMarcus Lawrence has got the talent. He’s been out there working against one of the best offensive tackles in the game in Tyron Smith every day in practice. He’s taken a couple of lumps from him, but he’s definitely won some of those battles, too. That definitely shows me that he has the talent, and he has the will to do it. We’ve just got to see what he can do when the pads come on, but I definitely see a productive guy in DeMarcus Lawrence.”

Filling out Cowboys' roster: Safeties

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
1:30
PM ET
Constructing a 53-man roster is a difficult process, piecing together 10 positions groups and matching up present needs with future production of older and younger players. This week we take a look at constructing the Dallas Cowboys' roster.

Safeties

On the roster: Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Matt Johnson, Jakar Hamilton, Ahmad Dixon, Ryan Smith

Locks: Church, Wilcox, Heath

Virtual lock: Hamilton

Need help: Smith, Johnson, Dixon

How many fit? This is a thin group with only three locks and five spots open. And it’s possible the Cowboys go with four safeties, but they kept five last year and they don’t appear to have a hybrid corner/safety on the roster at this point.

Adding a veteran during camp or by the time the final cuts come around is a possibility.

Church
Church is the only truly known commodity. He is one of the most stable defensive players they have and has developed into something of a leader as well. The Cowboys want Wilcox to be the guy, but that doesn’t mean he will end up being the guy. He has much to learn after playing the spot only for a year at Georgia Southern and having his development slowed last year after the death of his mother and a knee injury. Heath will be a special-teams stalwart. He was forced to play too much last year, but he has fans throughout the building who believe he can grow into the job.

Of the remaining safeties, Hamilton had the best spring. He was a disappointment last year after he was one of their priority college free agents. He was not disciplined enough but was better in the OTAs and minicamp. Johnson’s lack of health has kept him off the field for the last two seasons, and he has run out of options. He did little in the spring because of a hamstring injury. He has to show he can stay healthy and make plays. The coaches say he did it in the limited work he has had over two seasons, but the Cowboys can be only so patient.

Dixon was drafted with the idea that he would be a special-teams ace as a rookie with the ability to grow. He is aggressive. He will attack. When the pads come on that should fit his game more. Smith is an intriguing undrafted prospect. He opened some eyes with his work in the spring and ability to cover some ground. Will he be aggressive when the pads come on? If he wants to build on a good first impression then he better.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
IRVING, Texas -- Rod Marinelli likes what he saw from his Dallas Cowboys defense in the spring.

The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.

“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”

Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.

“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”

It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.

“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”

Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.

But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.

He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.

He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.

He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.

So much to prove. So much to forget.

“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”

Best case/worst case: J.J. Wilcox

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

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.

J.J. Wilcox

Best-case: He’s the guy

Wilcox
It’s clear the Cowboys want Wilcox to be the man. After the first three safeties available in the May draft -- Calvin Pryor, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Jimmie Ward -- the Cowboys felt Wilcox was just as good as the others and therefore did not make an early or mid-round bid on a safety. Wilcox is new to the position, having only played it one year at Georgia Southern and just 13 games last season with the Cowboys. He was on the verge of winning the job in training camp but had to leave for a few weeks after the death of his mother. After taking over in Week 3, he suffered a knee injury that kept him out of three games and couldn't retake the job from Jeff Heath. Wilcox understands he has to make the step opposite Barry Church. He showed last summer he can make plays against the run and pass. He needs to add consistency, like all young players, but there is something to work with. If he can come up with a four-interception season, then the Cowboys will have their safety of the future.

Worst-case: Nobody takes the job

When Rod Marinelli was the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, he managed to thrive with solid but unspectacular safeties. He did have a terrific front seven, but was able to get by with what he had at safety. He does not have a prolific front seven with the Cowboys, so he could need more from the safeties not named Church. If the job is too big for Wilcox, Heath, Matt Johnson or Jakar Hamilton, the Cowboys are in trouble. Wilcox will get the best chance to earn the gig. Heath was overexposed last season, but the Cowboys believe he has some upside. Johnson will remain a health question. Hamilton looked much better in the offseason than he did as a rookie. If they could combine each of their assets into one, then the Cowboys would have a decent player. They don’t need Darren Woodson, but they can’t have a repeat of last season, where the safeties were exposed on the deep ball and could not make enough disruptive plays. If it is a repeat, then put safety at the top of the list of team needs going into 2015.

Minicamp observations: Hamilton shines

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
5:00
PM ET
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys concluded their final minicamp practice Thursday at AT&T Stadium with a lunch for the players and coaches’ families, but the 90-minute session had some highlights worth noting.
  • Safety Jakar Hamilton came up with a nice interception after linebacker Anthony Hitchens deflected a Dustin Vaughan throw down the seam to wide receiver Devin Street. Hamilton instinctively stuck one hand in the air and then corralled the ball as he turned up field. Hamilton later did a nice job being in position to force an off-target throw to Dez Bryant in the slot.
  • Bryant
    Bryant
    From our vantage point it was hard to tell if Bryant was able to get his feet down for a touchdown catch on a fade pass from Brandon Weeden over Morris Claiborne, but it was an impressive athletic feat. Jason Witten might have had a TD catch from Weeden in seven-on-seven drills over safety J.J. Wilcox, but the replay officials might have overturned it with one foot appearing out of bounds.
  • Left tackle Tyron Smith sealed off the edge to allow running back Lance Dunbar to scamper in for a touchdown run in the red zone. Dunbar had a touchdown run with the second-team offense in a two-minute situation.
  • Rookie punter Cody Mandell scraped the center-hung digital board three times during special teams’ drills. He did the same when he played in Arlington while at Alabama. On Thursday, however, Jason Garrett said the board was lower than its normal 90 feet. The board was lowered for a recent George Strait concert.
  • Quarterback Caleb Hanie was sharp in his situational work, completing four of his five passes, including a nice corner route to Street for a decent gain. One of Dunbar’s touchdowns was set up by a pass interference penalty on Terrance Mitchell, who was covering Street.
  • Linebacker Orie Lemon did a nice job breaking up a goal-line throw to tight end Gavin Escobar in seven-on-seven work with the second team. Weeden was able to complete the same route to James Hanna in the first-team work with a nice fastball.
IRVING, Texas -- Let's start the final day of the Dallas Cowboys' minicamp with some observations from Wednesday's team and 7-on-7 drills.
  • All eyes will be on Bruce Carter this season. If he can cover the way he did in this session, then he will be greatly improved over 2013. He blanketed Jason Witten on a corner route in the end zone, forcing an incompletion when Brandon Weeden's pass wasn't perfect. He also intercepted Weeden at the goal line, reading the quarterback's eyes as he tried to fire a pass low. After the play defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli challenged Carter by saying, "Do it again."
  • Weeden's best throw came on the first play of 7-on-7 drills when he put just enough air and just enough speed on a throw over safety J.J. Wilcox to wide receiver Terrance Williams by the goal posts. Williams was able to make the athletic grab and get both feet down for the touchdown.
  • Tempers flared when center Travis Frederick and defensive end Tyrone Crawford got into a scuffle. Rookie guard Zack Martin lost his helmet in the fracas.
  • Crawford had an active practice, but DeMarcus Lawrence also performed well hours after signing his first contract. He trapped Lance Dunbar on a shotgun run versus the first team. To close the day he drew a holding penalty on Darrion Weems and had a would-be sack of Vaughan.
  • Rookie cornerback Terrance Mitchell has wasted little time making a good impression. He had an interception of Caleb Hanie on a slant, forced a fumble that went out of bounds and broke up a Dustin Vaughan pass to LaRon Byrd.
  • The defense had some poor situational football on a fourth-and-long play. Tight end Gavin Escobar was able to come up with a first-down on a seam route with the linebackers and safety getting separated in their coverages.
  • Rookie safety Ahmad Dixon ended practice with an interception on a Vaughan overthrow of tight end James Hanna. Dixon sprinted up the field but heard the coaches and teammates yelling for him to get down because the turnover ended the game. No need to risk a return and have something bad happening.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
10:30
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
  • The state of the Cowboys defense.
  • Adding a new name to the veteran linebacker mix.
  • The future of B.W. Webb.
  • Tony Romo's two back surgeries.
  • Bruce Carter's performance in organized team activities.

Away we go:
@toddarcher: The odds say the defense can't be worse than it was last year, but I was saying the same thing about the 2013 defense compared to the previous year. Look where that got me. The Cowboys don't have a pass-rusher better than DeMarcus Ware on the current roster. They believe Henry Melton can be a younger (and better fit) version of Hatcher, but he's coming back from knee surgery. They will not have Sean Lee. It's hard to say the defense will be better. There are questions at every level and with almost every player. The safest picks are Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick. You know what you will get from those guys. Do you know what you'll get from anybody else? I'm not so sure. I'm playing the odds and say they will be better, but I don't see them cracking the top half of the league. If they can get in the low 20s, then they'll have a chance to make the playoffs. @toddarcher: Well, James Harrison doesn't play a position of need here in this scheme. If they were in a 3-4, I'd say yes. He was marginal last year in Cincinnati in a 4-3. Too many times we get caught up in names when it comes to the Cowboys. That's why everybody mentioned Brian Urlacher. Harrison was a great player, on par with Ware. He made a ton of disruptive plays. But he's not that guy anymore. And he doesn't fit a need. The strong-side linebacker in this scheme is going to play 40 percent of the snaps. It will be either Kyle Wilber or DeVonte Holloman, and Wilber will get my vote. Harrison had his time. He's not a guy the Cowboys need to go after. @toddarcher: If I was putting together a 53-man roster right now, Webb would not be on it. Sterling Moore has been better. Tyler Patmon, who was at the rookie minicamp on a tryout basis and earned a job, has been better. We haven't seen seventh rounder Terrance Mitchell since the rookie camp because of league rules, but I'd put him ahead of Webb right now. You're just not seeing progress either outside or in the slot. I hate to give up on a guy in his second year, but sometimes it's just obvious. He has the athletic ability but it's just not translating. He was getting virtual one-on-one coaching last year when he was forced to play and he struggled. Right now he would be my fifth or sixth corner at best. He has to have a really good training camp and preseason to make the club. @toddarcher: It's still a surgery. They still had to knock him out. It still kept him out for an entire offseason. Jerry Jones likened it to a toothache, but it was enough to keep him out of everything. Was it as serious as the one he had last December? No, but it's still something. It's still accurate. @toddarcher: I wish I could say he's been different than in the past, but he's been about the same. I'm not meaning to sound down on him, but it's difficult to cover Jason Witten. I haven't noticed him on backs as much and he struggled there last year. But he's been in position a few times and not made a play. He's made some plays. It's been OK. He needs to be better than OK. That doesn't mean he has to turn into Derrick Brooks, but he has to take a step forward. Sometimes he will do something and you'll say, Wow. Other times you're left wondering what he was watching.

OTAs end with Cowboys U camp

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
4:15
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys concluded their organized team activities on Thursday with what has become their annual Cowboys U. football camp.

The Cowboys brought in 160 kids from 20 north Texas high schools from 10 different districts for a 6-on-6 round robin tournament with the Cowboys players as coaches. After the camp, the players went through a life skills' session with the players and coaches.

Team Tyron Smith beat Team Tony Romo in a storm-shortened championship game. Team Smith converted a two-point conversion on the final play with a lightning storm looming in the background.

“A lot of teams I’ve been on do bowling outings or fishing outings or something like that,” said coach Jason Garrett, who operates a similar camp every June at Princeton. “We feel like this is a win-win across the board. Our players work with the kids and the kids have an opportunity to be with the players. Everybody is taking advantage of it. Our players embrace it. They get closer as a result of it. You see our guys running around the field high fiving each other, high fiving the kids, competing against each other. I just think it’s a real positive day for so many different reasons.”

Cornerback Brandon Carr will hold a camp later this month in Michigan and another in Duncanville, Texas, before heading to training camp.

"It’s a learning experience,” Carr said. “It’s an opportunity to switch hats and kind of see what the coaches go through on a day-to-day basis. This is a lot of fun just being with the kids and seeing the guys and how they respond to coaching and being with kids.

Safety J.J. Wilcox empathizes with his position coaches, Jerome Henderson and Joe Baker.

“Now I know why they get gray hair so early,” Wilcox said.

After handing out awards and a brief lunch, the high school kids heard stories from the players.

“I start with life is about opportunity, creating opportunities for yourself and taking advantage of them,” Garrett said. “We don’t have the kids ask the players for autographs or take pictures with them. But I encourage them if you have a chance to be walking in next to Tyron Smith, ask him a question, where he came from, why he chose USC, who’s the best guy he plays against, what’s the hardest thing in his life. All of those things can positively impact the kid. The kids do a great job understanding that and they develop relationships with players in a short period of time.”

Cowboys maintain patience with Johnson

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- When Matt Johnson spoke after the first day of the Dallas Cowboys' organized team activities about how well his hamstrings had felt for more than year, he joked that he needed to find a piece of wood to knock on.

Johnson
It must not have worked.

Johnson has missed most of the OTAs with a sore hamstring but there is a tiny hope will be able to do some work during next week's minicamp. Johnson suffered hamstring injuries that mostly kept him out for his entire rookie year. He missed last season with a foot injury that required surgery.

As they have since they drafted him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, the Cowboys will remain patient.

"Our attitude is to try to give him an opportunity to show us what he can do," coach Jason Garrett said.

Some of you might ask why.

"The interesting thing about Matt is that every time we've given him an opportunity, he seems to do a pretty good job, whether it's in practice or some of the scrimmage situations that he's been in," Garrett said. "He just needs time on task. He needs to get out there. It seems to me that he's got a real good approach mentally. He continues to work. He doesn't seem outwardly frustrated. I'm sure he is, but he's just got to continue to work through it, get himself healthy. We're going to try to give him every chance to show us what he can do."

If the Cowboys were set at the safety position maybe they would feel otherwise. While they like what J.J. Wilcox has done this offseason, he is hardly a lock to win the spot. Jeff Heath started nine games last year.

Johnson, despite his inability to stay healthy, still has a chance to win a job.

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