The Cowboys’ defense has too many holes to expect to fill them all with newcomers, especially if the glaring issues with the interior offensive line are going to be properly addressed.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick doesn’t count in this discussion. He's paid like a starter and played more snaps than Mike Jenkins last season. (Plus, the Cowboys would be best off keeping Scandrick in the nickel role and getting another corner to start.)
We’re thinking of players who spent the vast majority of the defensive snaps watching on the sideline last season but could be ready for starting roles. Four candidates come to mind:
ILB Bruce Carter: Like Lee, Carter was available for the Cowboys to draft in the second round because of concerns about a major knee injury suffered in college. The Cowboys have to hope their scouts were as right about Carter as they were about Lee. With Bradie James and Keith Brooking exiting Valley Ranch, the speedy, athletic Carter has to start next season or he’s a wasted pick. After coming off the physically unable to perform list, Carter played only 41 defensive snaps, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Making sure he’s ready will be one of the primary projects for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus during OTAs, minicamps and training camp.
OLB Victor Butler: The 2009 fourth-round pick has proven he can rush the passer in short bursts. He had half as many sacks (three) as starter Anthony Spencer despite playing about a quarter as many snaps last season. Can the 6-foot-2, 249-pound Butler hold up as an every-down strongside outside linebacker? Can Butler be consistently solid against the run? Spencer is a free agent, so those are questions Butler could have the chance to answer next season.
SS Barry Church: Ryan is on record saying he believes Church can be a starter soon, as the defensive coordinator loves Church’s toughness and intelligence. Ideally, the Cowboys could pair Gerald Sensabaugh with a rangy free safety, but that isn’t likely to happen unless they pay big money for Tennessee’s Michael Griffin or roll with a rookie from a relatively weak safety crop. Church, who played many of his snaps as a nickel linebacker last season, has proven he can be a force against the run. How could a safety who wasn’t drafted due to his speed fare in coverage on a consistent basis?
DE Sean Lissemore: Jerry Jones said Lissemore’s athleticism and motor reminded him of Jay Ratliff when the Cowboys drafted the former high school sprinter in the 2010 seventh round. Lissemore lived up to that comparison in limited snaps last season. He was by far the Cowboys’ most effective defensive end, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s grades, despite being the fourth man in a four-man rotation. Kenyon Coleman’s one-year contract is expiring and the Cowboys know what they have in Marcus Spears. It might be time to find out how good Lissemore can be.