Dallas Cowboys: Alan Ball

Safety track record not good for Cowboys

March, 5, 2013
IRVING, Texas – After the Cowboys released Gerald Sensabaugh on Monday, I wrote that the move was risky, considering the Cowboys do not have a known commodity currently under contract.

Randy Galloway and Matt Mosley discuss the Cowboys putting the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer and releasing Gerald Sensabaugh.

Listen Listen
After checking out the comments section, I soon realized Sensabaugh was the worst safety in NFL history and was responsible for the current sequester. Maybe I’m stubborn, but I believe Sensabaugh is solid. Great? No. Good enough? Sure.

Another reason why the move is risky is that the Cowboys have not been able to find a long-term safety since Darren Woodson.

And everybody believes the Cowboys struggle to identify quality offensive linemen?

Roy Williams had a good run for a few years but then tailed off badly. Ken Hamlin had one good season with the Cowboys, signed a big contract and then didn’t seem to like playing much again. Keith Davis was a special teamer turned starter out of necessity. At the prices the Cowboys paid Sensabaugh, I think they did OK with him for four years. Abram Elam lasted one season as a starter, which is better than Brodney Pool, who didn’t last a week in training camp.

(UPDATE: The original version forgot Lynn Scott, an undrafted player in 2001 that the Cowboys had hopes for early.)

Since 2001, the Cowboys have drafted nine safeties and the best has been Williams, and he was the eighth overall pick in 2002. People will remind you that Ed Reed is a Hall of Famer and went later to Baltimore. Tony Dixon (second, 2001) never panned out. Justin Beriault (sixth, 2006) was hurt and never played.

Pat Watkins (fifth, 2006) was tall and an OK special teamer. Alan Ball (seventh, 2007) was drafted as a corner, became a forgettable starter at safety and moved back to cornerback. Mike Hamlin and DeAngelo Smith were fifth-rounders in the forgettable 2009 draft and didn’t make an impact. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (fourth, 2010) was hurt when drafted, came from a small school and made switch from corner to safety – and never made an impact.

Barry Church and Danny McCray were undrafted players in 2010 that have made an impact. But Church, as close to an incumbent the Cowboys have at the position, is coming off an Achilles tear, and McCray showed he’s a special-teamer with the more work he got on defense last season.

Matt Johnson was a fourth-round pick last year and never played a snap because of recurring hamstring injuries. Judgment should be withheld until he actually gets on the field, but let’s just say history is not on his side.

The Cowboys needed to look at the safety spot before Sensabaugh’s release and now they must really look at it.

But do you trust they will find the right safety even in a draft that is considered rich at the position?
IRVING, Texas – While I’m still wondering how the Cowboys can run one offensive play in the final 26 seconds of a game like they did Sunday at Baltimore, it’s time to move on to the weekly Five Wonders feature as Carolina awaits.

** I wondered at the time whether the Cowboys were making the smart move in improving their cornerback situation in the offseason instead of improving the pass rush. After five games, it seems pretty clear that in the long debate of whether a pass rush makes a secondary or vice versa, that the former is true. Five games into the season the Cowboys are waiting for their first interception by a defensive back. Last year, at least they had two in the first five games and those players, Terence Newman and Alan Ball, are gone. The defensive backs have only 13 pass deflections so far against 130 pass attempts. Blame the defensive backs if you want, but if a quarterback is not under duress, then he’s not going to throw a ball up for grabs.

** I wonder if those who thought Jason Witten had lost it with his poor start to the season are starting to feel a little bit queasy. In the last two games Witten has 19 catches for 200 yards on 21 targets from Tony Romo. He is on pace for 86 catches for 883 yards, which puts the first three games in which he dropped five passes into some different light. If he caught the passes against Seattle and Tampa Bay, especially those down the field, Witten would be on pace for more than 1,000 yards again. If Witten had lost it, then he would not have been as open as he was getting. It was simply a case of the drops. In the last two games, he has been nearly flawless. The lone time he and Romo did not hook up on a pass came on Lance Briggs’ interception return when Romo was hit as he attempted to flip the ball free. The only miss against Baltimore was on an overthrow on a waggle in which safety Ed Reed was lurking.

** Jason Garrett had a particularly strong comment about penalties on Monday and what he can do to rectify the issue. He finally mentioned playing time. “Certainly you have the option of saying, ‘OK, if you continue to get penalized like this you’re going to be out of the lineup or you’re going to be of the football team,” he said. Strong. But I wonder what action he can take. Yes, Doug Free had some penalties again, but do you want to see Jermey Parnell on a full-time basis? Parnell has played a handful of snaps this season in short-yardage situations and has a penalty and two missed assignments. Kevin Ogletree had some illegal shift troubles and his playing time might be in trouble going forward. But do you want to see more Dwayne Harris? If you’re asking me, I’m putting Cole Beasley on the field in the slot and keeping Miles Austin outside all the time.

** The Cowboys dodged a bullet of sorts with DeMarco Murray’s sprained foot. There was an initial fear that he had a Lisfranc injury that would have ended his season. He is not expected to play this week at Carolina and will be viewed as week to week after that. I wonder if the Cowboys look for a more experienced runner to help Felix Jones through however long this stretch is. The Cowboys signed Sammy Morris late last season after Murray was lost for the year and they were already without Phillip Tanner. On Sunday Tanner and Lance Dunbar did a nice job filling in when Jones needed to get an IV after Murray’s day ended. But there is a trickle-down effect on special teams because if Tanner has to run more, then they might have to cut back on his special teams’ snaps. Dunbar maybe as well. I don’t think they’ll go that route, but just something to think about.

**I wonder if we saw on Sunday a little bit of how the Cowboys would like to work their cornerbacks in the base defense. Morris Claiborne started and played the first two series. Mike Jenkins was in on the third series and I’d suspect he would have played the next series if he didn’t need to get his right shoulder examined. Injuries, I think wrecked the plan altogether. Claiborne twisted his knee on the Ravens’ last series of the first half and was called for a pass interference penalty that just defies logic. With Jenkins and Claiborne hurt to start the second half, Orlando Scandrick was in with the base defense. If Claiborne and Jenkins are healthy and the Cowboys are playing a team that does not use a lot of three wides, like Baltimore, I’m betting that rotation will return.

Barry Church ready to start

August, 6, 2012

OXNARD, Calif. -- With the Dallas Cowboys releasing safety Brodney Pool on Monday morning, it opened the door for Barry Church to become the starter.

Signing Pool was designed to create competition at the position and during offseason workouts. Church was a reserve. But after Pool failed his conditioning test to start training camp, Church received the majority of the first-team snaps.

"Just for them to release him kinda shows me they have a little confidence in me and a little confidence in my game," Church said Monday. "So I'm just going to go out there and keep trying to produce at a high level and hopefully I'll be a starter Sept. 5."

Church was surprised the team signed Pool because he figured younger players would compete for the job. But Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was familiar with Pool, having coached him in Cleveland. The Cowboys used veteran safeties, Abram Elam and Ken Hamlin, to pair with Gerald Sensabaugh in the past.

In 2010, the Cowboys moved Alan Ball to the safety spot but it didn't work out well.

"It was a little surprising to me at the beginning," Church said. "But I just knew they wanted competition at that safety (position) to bring out the best in both of us and that’s what it did. I felt it brought out the best in my game and here I am now taking the first-team reps and hopefully I can continue at that."

To improve his game, Church worked with tight end Jason Witten and Sensabaugh. Church wanted to improve his pass coverage skills. He was good as an in-the-box safety, but with more teams passing, Church needed to work on covering tight ends and running backs.

Church worked on getting his hands placed the right way on receivers and recognizing routes.

"It's been great learning from Elam and Gerald Sensabaugh in the offseason," Church said. "That’s who I worked with to fine-tune my talents in the offseason, especially in my man coverage skills. (Sensabaugh) helped me out a lot with that. Working on tight end releases and working with Jason Witten one-on-one in the offseason helped me fine-tune my craft and I felt like my tackling was down. In the box, things were pretty good, just the deep part of the field, working with Gerald in the offseason helped me take my game to another level."

Barry Church hopes to stop revolving door

July, 31, 2012
OXNARD, Calif. -- For the fourth straight year, Gerald Sensabaugh will have a different partner as one of the Cowboys’ two starting safeties.

In 2009, Sensabaugh was paired with Ken Hamlin. In 2010, it was Alan Ball. Last year it was Abram Elam.

And now it’s … Barry Church.

“I’m definitely trying to stick around longer than one year,” Church said. “We’ll see what happens, though.”

Church is not a lock to be the starter for the Sept. 5 season opener against the New York Giants but with Brodney Pool unable to finish the conditioning test and Matt Johnson working back from a hamstring injury, Church is getting the first look.

Church has started one game in his two seasons but spent most of last season playing in substitution packages, including spending some time at inside linebacker.

“I feel like my versatility was a big key for me getting in the packages I was in,” Church said.

Now he spends most of his time at safety, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme is not a true free/strong safety combination.

“It’s more of right and left,” Church said. “They want us to learn both, but the strong safety is more likely to go down and be the thumper in the running game and the free safety will be back deep. But with motions happening and reloads, you’ve got to be able to play both positions.”
IRVING, Texas -- If you listen to Jerry Jones, you’ll come away convinced that the Cowboys are going to revolutionize the NFL by putting four cornerbacks on the field on a regular basis.

ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer discusses Jerry Jones' comments on Dez Bryant and Jason Garrett and the recent developments at Cowboys OTAs.

Listen Listen
Maybe somebody should get that memo to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

Ryan didn’t rule out putting the four cornerbacks on the field together at times. However, he sounded lukewarm on the idea of playing Mike Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick at safety, which would be necessary to put four corners on the field when the opposing offense doesn’t use four wide receivers.

“I don’t know if we’ll do that,” Ryan said. “If we ever get in a need to play all those guys, then we can do that certainly. They have good skill sets where I’m sure they could match up with a tight end, a smaller tight end or whatever. It’s just if that need ever shows up, then you can definitely play those four guys.”

The Cowboys learned the hard way last season that an NFL team can never have too many corners. Terence Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick all missed games due to injury, which forced the Cowboys to count on guys such as Frank Walker, Alan Ball and Bryan McCann.

They’re confident they won’t get in that kind of predicament this year, which is one reason they have no intention of trading Jenkins after signing Brandon Carr and drafting Morris Claiborne.

“Anybody who watched our team last year understood the injury situations that we had, and we were getting down to our third, fourth and fifth corner really quickly,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “So when teams are putting three receivers out there, four receivers out there and sometimes five receivers out there, you have to have an arsenal of guys who can cover. We think that’s an important thing.

“We think we made a lot of moves to help us in that area. The specifics of how we use those guys is yet to be determined.”

Why the Cowboys won't trade Mike Jenkins

May, 26, 2012

The Indianapolis Colts are interested in cornerback Mike Jenkins. I was told the Detroit Lions are, too. But there are other teams that want nothing to do with him.

Reality set in for me Friday when I was told, again, the Dallas Cowboys are not interested in trading Jenkins.

There are several reasons why. Let's explore.

1. Injuries. Jenkins battled through shoulder, neck and knee issues last season and still tied for the team lead with 10 pass breakups. In some ways, Jenkins was the Cowboys' best corner last season given how badly Terence Newman played down the stretch and Orlando Scandrick's own inconsistencies. But the Cowboys played five cornerbacks last season. The names? Jenkins, Newman, Scandrick, Alan Ball and Frank Walker. Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick -- the top corners on the team -- missed a total of nine games due to injuries last season. You can never have enough cornerbacks on your team considering how fragile the position can be. Morris Claiborne, Dallas' first-round pick, hasn't practiced yet with his new team while he recovers from wrist surgery. Scandrick battled ankle problems last season. You need depth on your team, and keeping Jenkins adds that.

2. Jenkins was good. He did make the Pro Bowl in 2009 as an injury replacement, so the Cowboys know he can play at a high level. His inconsistencies bother them, but Jenkins is good in man and zone coverage. He's got the speed to run with speedy receivers and his size is good enough to take on taller receivers, too. The issue Jenkins faces is not being a physical corner. Jenkins isn't afraid to mix it up with receivers and tight ends in tight spaces, but he doesn't do it as much as he used to. Some NFL teams wish he would do it more. The question you have to ask yourself is, is Jenkins better than Scandrick?

3. The Cowboys' trade needs. A front office source said the Cowboys want something significant for Jenkins if they deal him. What does significant mean? A fourth-round pick? Fifth round? Seventh round? It's doubtful the Cowboys are getting a first- or second-round selection for Jenkins. Not because Jenkins isn't worth it, but because he's in the final year of his contract and he's coming off shoulder surgery. The Cowboys don't have much leverage. If you just want to give him away, you can always get a seventh rounder for him. But keeping Jenkins could also mean gaining an compenstatory pick in next year's NFL draft.

Is Mike Jenkins' rehab a question?

April, 27, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- Intended or not, the Cowboys’ decision to trade up for cornerback Morris Claiborne sends a message to Mike Jenkins.

One of the messages could be related to Jenkins’ approach to his rehabilitation from offseason shoulder surgery. According to sources, Jenkins has spent the majority of his time working out in his native Florida and not at Valley Ranch, much to the consternation of some at Valley Ranch, although coach Jason Garrett and executive vice president Stephen Jones would not get into that talk.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett comments on Dallas' decision to select Morris Claiborne in the first round of the NFL draft, his expectations for Claiborne and more.

Listen Listen
The Cowboys' offseason program started last week, but injured players had been allowed to rehab since the season ended.

“He’s coming along,” Garrett said. “He’s been down in Florida some. He was here last week, so he’s coming along. It’s a serious injury he has. We feel like he’s making progress and he’ll be ready to go.”

According to a league source the Cowboys are looking to trade Jenkins, who will enter the final year of his contract. With uncertainty regarding his health and contractual future, getting full value for Jenkins could prove to be difficult.

The Cowboys would be wise to not give up Jenkins for next to nothing.

Injuries forced the Cowboys to play Alan Ball and Frank Walker more than they had anticipated last year, and they were exposed. For short and long spells at different times last season the Cowboys were without Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick and Jenkins.

Keeping four quality corners in a division with talented quarterbacks and wide receivers might be worth any potential headaches.

Cowboys show interest in Stanford Routt

February, 10, 2012
The Cowboys have expressed interest in cornerback Stanford Routt, who was released by the Oakland Raiders on Thursday.

Vann McElroy, Routt's Houston-based agent, said Friday morning his client is scheduled to visit the Buffalo Bills on Saturday with another trip planned for next week to see the Tennessee Titans.

McElroy said no other visits have been scheduled. However, Minnesota, Kansas City and Dallas have reached out to the agent about Routt's services.

Last year, Routt signed a restructured contract for five-years worth $54.5 million with the Raiders, with at least $20 million in guarantees the first two seasons of the deal.

According to STATS LLC, opponents were held to a 47.4 completion percentage against Routt. But he allowed eight touchdown passes, tied for the second-most in the NFL, and led the league with 17 penalties committed. The Raiders had to make a decision regarding Routt because if he was still on the roster Friday, he would have been guaranteed a base salary of $5 million.

The connection to Routt comes from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who coached him in Oakland. Ryan is partial to players he's coached in other places; for example, the team signed safety Abram Elam last year.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones has said there will be new faces to the secondary, and Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick are expected to return. However, cornerbacks Alan Ball and, Frank Walker are free agents.

Veteran corner Terence Newman, still under contract, could be released in a cost-saving move.

Random Thoughts from Senior Bowl

January, 25, 2012

MOBILE, Ala. -- We're leaving the Senior Bowl after three days of nice, cool weather, and here's some notes:

1. The Cowboys are doing their due diligence regarding the quarterback position. I don't believe the Cowboys will draft one, but they did interview Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden on Sunday. Jerry Jones said if the team picks up a quarterback, it has to be a veteran who can move quickly in the offense. Weeden's age, 28, means he's a little more mature than some rookie quarterbacks and he picked up the Washington Redskins offensive terminology pretty quickly during practices here.

2. Finding a cornerback is a must for the Cowboys. When Jones says there will be new faces on the roster at that position, he's telling the truth. Alan Ball, Frank Walker, Terence Newman and quite possibly Abram Elam might be gone from the 2011 roster. The Cowboys interviewed troubled corner Janoris Jenkins, but one corner to watch is Georgia's Brandon Boykin. He's 5-9 1/4 and 183 pounds. He plays physical and can play the slot and outside. Boykin can also return kicks and punts.

3. It seems Keith Brooking wants to continue playing, according to his agent Pat Dye Jr. Brooking is open to playing a reduced role with the Cowboys. You could say he played a reduced role in 2011, but that was only after the team felt confident enough in Sean Lee's development in training camp to pair him up with Bradie James. The Cowboys want a younger team, especially on defense, but if Brooking is willing to play 10 defensive snaps with some special team duties per game, it might be worth keeping him around.

4. It's pretty interesting the Cowboys are downplaying Dez Bryant's confrontation in Miami last week. Jerry Jones has not spoken to Bryant, but someone in the organization did, according to Jason Garrett. Bryant's behavior away from the field should concern the Cowboys and if they don't get a handle on it, it could go bad quickly.

5. Brooking is coming here to be inducted into the Senior Bowl Hall of Fame along with Donovan McNabb and Dan Reeves. ... If the Cowboys sign a veteran quarterback, why not get David Garrard? The former Jacksonville quarterback's back should be 100 percent by the end of March. ... Garrett went to only one Pro Day last year, USC's to check out Tyron Smith. Garrett didn't say if that number will increase. He expects it to be a case-by-case basis. ... DE Marcus Spears is expected to return along with fellow DE Jason Hatcher. As good as Spears and Hatcher were, Kenyon Coleman struggled down the stretch.

Cowboys might visit with Janoris Jenkins

January, 24, 2012
MOBILE, Ala. -- The Cowboys have a scheduled meeting with troubled yet talented cornerback Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama for Tuesday night here at the Senior Bowl.

Update: Jenkins, after meeting with the Oakland Raiders, said the meeting with Cowboys might not happen.

"No big deal, though," he said. "It might happen."

Jenkins, was kicked off the Florida football team for various offenses, including being arrested twice within a three-month span on drug-related charges. He also got into a fight and was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor affray and resisting arrest without violence.

"I just go in as who I am," said Jenkins, who has spoken to five NFL teams. "I tell them what happened and be honest because I did it. I made a mistake and I take full responsibility for it. I'm sure I have to deal with it. I'm looking forward to it. I have nothing to hide. I just go in and they ask me the question and I give it to them and be honest. I just look them in the eye and let them know I can be honest."

The Cowboys' scouts most likely will speak with Jenkins and provide a report to Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett.

Jones said Monday he expects to see new faces in the secondary. He offered support for Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins but didn't for veteran corner Terence Newman.

Also, Frank Walker, Alan Ball and Abram Elam are unrestricted free agents and their long-term status with the team is still being determined by the front office.

It's not guaranteed the Cowboys will draft Jenkins with the 14th pick of the first round, or even later on. His off-the-field issues pushed him down many draft boards, including the one of ESPN's Mel Kiper, who doesn't have Jenkins as a first-round pick on his first Mock Draft.

The other downside to Jenkins is the fact he played Division II and several teams didn't direct passes his way.

"There were a lot of times I was out there by myself," Jenkins said. "I had to make plays on special teams, punt returns, being a gunner. The time they weren't coming at me, I was working on my techniques. Just basically trying to get better."

Deciphering Jerry Jones is never easy

January, 24, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- Sometimes it is difficult to translate Jerry Jones. Over the years you get a feel for not so much what the Cowboys owner and general manager says but how he delivers the message.

Darren Woodson helps decipher some of Jerry Jones' quotes from the Senior Bowl regarding Terence Newman and his secondary. Woodson says Jerry's low tone of speaking means you're cut.

Listen Listen
Jones spoke to reporters Monday at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and some of what he said made sense, and some, frankly didn’t.

What made sense: “If you don’t have pressure on them [the opposing quarterback], then you’re toast.”

What didn’t make sense: “Our front is one of the strengths of our team.”

Huh? This front seven needs a makeover. Look at San Francisco, Baltimore and the New York Giants. Those front sevens make plays. The Cowboys have DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff, but he had just two sacks in 2011. Anthony Spencer, Bradie James and Keith Brooking are free agents. Kenyon Coleman is not a lock to return.

What made sense: “We’re very likely to have new faces over there [in the secondary]. How much I can’t tell you but we’re going to have new faces.”

What didn’t make sense: “It wouldn’t be a surprise for him to be there on the team,” talking about Abram Elam, who is a free agent.

Well, if Elam returns – and I’d favor that and have said they should have re-signed him in favor of Gerald Sensabaugh – then the only new faces in the secondary would be Terence Newman, Alan Ball and Frank Walker.

What made sense: “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

What didn’t make sense: “Personnel is not an issue in my mind overall relative to us having a good team next year. I think we’re going to have and do have a core base of personnel that’s going to get us there.”

What the, huh? The core is pretty good if that core is about 10-15 players deep but the Cowboys need to shore up the depth of this team to be better than 8-8 in 2012. Now, that’s not unlike a lot of teams in the NFL but the teams that made playoff runs had reliable players in spots 16-46 on game days.

Jerome Henderson explains what he wants

January, 20, 2012
The Cowboys' secondary drove you crazy last season.

It was inconsistent and its three prime cornerbacks, Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins, were hurt at various times during the season. The safety play from starters Abram Elam and Gerald Sensbaugh was inconsistent, as well. Sensabaugh played with a sprained foot the last two months of the season and was in so much pain, he took a pain injection before games.

The numbers suggest the Cowboys' secondary was not very good. It allowed 57 passes of 20 or more yards, eighth most in the NFL, and Dallas went 0-3 when opposing quarterbacks threw for 300 or more yards. One bright spot was that the Cowboys allowed just eight first downs on third-and-10, the fourth fewest in the NFL.

New secondary coach Jerome Henderson has to work with a secondary that might see significant changes.

Here's what Henderson expects from the secondary: "Guys who will challenge, guys who are tough and guys who play with intelligence -- situational intelligence. And that's one of the things I will really talk to the guys about: having situational understanding of football. There are certain situations where I have to get down on that guy [in] certain situations."

Elam is an unrestricted free agent and it's not known if the Cowboys want to bring him back. Henderson coached Elam in Cleveland for the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

"Abe is probably one of the best people I know," Henderson said. "One of the best men, cares about his teammates, cares about football, works his butt off, studies, prepares, competes. He's tough. I love the kid."

The secondary also has Alan Ball, Frank Walker, Mana Silva, Danny McCray and Barry Church.

Who returns is uncertain. The Cowboys could add a cornerback in the draft, maybe in the first or second round, and must prepare themselves if they don't have Jenkins for offseason workouts.

Jenkins underwent shoulder surgery that will keep him out four to six months while rehabbing. He might not be ready until training camp and he could be limited when he returns.

"I'm sure there are guys in place that will be on this team that will be big contributors on this team," Henderson said. "I just don't know the roles and I don't know what I have to do with them to get them to where I want them to be or where they should be."

One thing Henderson has done is start the process of reviewing film of his unit. He's built small lockers in his office of every secondary player on the roster, and when they're involved in a play he takes a clip of it and places it in the small stalls.

Henderson is trying to see if the secondary players are making plays and, if not, he's trying to fix it. Henderson said he's a coach that wants to give his players solutions to their problems if they have any.

"I do know there are a lot of guys who will play a lot of football for the Dallas Cowboys that are already on the roster," Henderson said.

Help coming from within for Cowboys' D?

January, 13, 2012
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.

They need some young players who have played bit roles to become starters. This can be boom (Sean Lee) or bust (Alan Ball).

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.

Breakdown of Cowboys' penalties

January, 5, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- For the sixth straight year the Cowboys had more than 100 penalties in a season, matching the longest streak in team history.

The Cowboys’ 114 penalties were fifth-most in the NFL and Jason Garrett was unable to correct a problem that has plagued predecessors Bill Parcells and Wade Phillips.

Doug Free and DeMarcus Ware led the Cowboys with 10 penalties called, although Ware had one penalty declined during the year. Free had five holding penalties and five false starts. Ware had seven offside penalties, two roughing the passer penalties and a neutral zone infraction.

Tyron Smith, Anthony Spencer and Orlando Scandrick had eight penalties called against them this year. Scandrick had two declined, Smith had one.

Spencer had four neutral zone infractions, which means the Cowboys’ best pass rushers had 12 penalties in which they could not time the snap properly. Spencer’s other penalties were an unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, running into the kicker and face mask.

An interesting note: three backup secondary players combined for 20 penalties. Scandrick had eight. Alan Ball had seven. Frank Walker had five. Fourteen of those were on defense. Scandrick was a quasi-starter as the nickel back, but Ball and Walker were flagged far too often given the amount of snaps they played. Guard Montrae Holland had six penalties in 10 games.

Another interesting note: Mike Jenkins was not penalized all year. Yes, he missed four games, but he was flagged nine times last year with six pass interference penalties. He was a much improved player all around in 2011.

Here’s the player-by-player breakdown of penalties

10 – Doug Free, DeMarcus Ware
8 – Anthony Spencer, Tyron Smith, Orlando Scandrick
7 – Alan Ball
6 – Montrae Holland
5 – Terence Newman, Tony Romo, Frank Walker
4 – Jason Hatcher
3 – Martellus Bennett, John Phillips, Jason Witten, Phillip Tanner, Kyle Kosier
2 – Keith Brooking, Jesse Holley, Kevin Ogletree, Tony Fiammetta, Barry Chruch, Josh Brent, Derrick Dockery, Jay Ratliff, Dez Bryant
1 – Bradie James, Sean Lee, Laurent Robinson, Gerald Sensabaugh, Victor Butler, Kenyon Coleman, Phil Costa, Abram Elam, Kevin Kowalski, L.P. Ladouceur, Stephen McGee, Miles Austin, Sean Lissemore

Beat writers recap: Cowboys-Giants

January, 3, 2012
The last beat writers recap of the 2011 season is here. We know you're excited.

Here we go.

*The Cowboys made an interesting decision to make cornerback Frank Walker inactive for the Giants game. With Walker out it meant the Cowboys stayed with Orlando Scandrick, Mike Jenkins, Terence Newman and Alan Ball as the only corners. When Jenkins went down with his shoulder injury, it reduced the number of corners available to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The move to sit Walker was to give Ball extended playing time. The Cowboys want to see if he can be a third corner in the future. He failed to recover a fumble and was flagged for a pass interference. Ball ended the game with three tackles. He struggled in pass coverage and raised more issues about the secondary going into the offseason.

*It's easy to say Doug Free needs to switch from left tackle to right tackle. He's going to face elite pass rushers on the right side as well. But there were times this season, and especially in the Giants game, where he didn't seem strong enough to contain the pass rush. Free might need more of the offseason program than anybody on the offensive line. It's not so much to gain weight, he's listed at 323 pounds, but to pick up strength in the upper body.

*Tony Romo said he got a pain injection for his throwing hand that was swollen on the top near the wrist. But after Romo got his shot, prior to kickoff, his hand was numb and had trouble feeling the ball in warmups. Romo missed wide receiver Dez Bryant, who ran the correct route on a third-and-four during the first possession. Romo didn't have a good grip on the ball, and we wonder if that's due to his hand having issues or he just messed up. Romo threw maybe two bad passes the entire game, the pick over the middle in the second half was bad, but not every throw is going to be perfect.

*Jason Hatcher had one of his better games on Sunday night. The line for Hatcher: Three tackles, half a sack and two quarterback hurries. Hatcher seemed to play faster this year and with more power. He emerged as the best defensive end on the team and when you think about the players who were signed after the lockout, his was the best move.

*In what might be their last game together, inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking combined for eight tackles, two tackles for loss and one pass breakup. ... Good to see Bruce Carter get some first half snaps with the first-team. It's a sign of things to come. ... Whatever the Cowboys do in 2012, they need to find a returner in the punting and kicking games. Dwayne Harris, Dez Bryant whoever. It doesn't matter, but the team needs to find somebody to do it and develop into this area. ... Romo was sacked six times on Sunday night. He seemed skittish in the pocket and that's not good sign with the season on the line. ... Punter Chris Jones had a net average of 38.8 with two inside the 20, really three if not for Ball's mistake of downing one at the four after he was penalized for stepping out of bounds on the return. ... The Cowboys finished the game with zero interceptions and two missed chances at loose balls. Sad.