Dallas Cowboys: Anthony Hitchens

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
11:00
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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.

Filling out Cowboys' roster: Linebackers

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
1:30
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Constructing a 53-man roster is a difficult process, piecing together 10 position 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.

Linebackers

On the roster: Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, DeVonte Holloman, Anthony Hitchens, Rolando McClain, Will Smith, Keith Smith, Dontavis Sapp, Orie Lemon, Joe Windsor, Cam Lawrence

Locks: Carter, Wilber, Holloman, Hitchens

Inside track: Durant, Will Smith, Lawrence

Need help: McClain, Keith Smith, Sapp, Lemon, Windsor

How many fit? In a 4-3 scheme, the general answer is to go with six, but seven is a real possibility here. They ended last season with seven on the 53-man roster, although that was because they held out hope Sean Lee could return from a neck injury and didn’t put him on injured reserve.

Now that backup quarterback Kyle Orton is gone, that could open up a spot on the 53-man.

Durant will enter camp as the starting middle linebacker for Lee, who will miss the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but if Durant doesn’t keep the job is he certain to be around? He counts $1.46 million against the cap and the Cowboys would save more than $1 million if they let him go. I don’t see that happening because there is so little experience among the linebackers, but I can’t put him in the ‘lock’ category just yet.

McClain is the most intriguing prospect just because of his past. He was the eighth pick in the draft in 2010, but never found a fit in Oakland and retired twice before he could play a snap with Baltimore. There should be a heavy dose of skepticism, but if he wants to play and wants to work, then the Cowboys might have hit on a player for a pittance (sixth or seventh round pick in the trade with the Ravens).

Carter needs a big year for a variety of reasons, especially personally. There is no better time to turn it on than in a contract year and he is in the final year of his deal. Wilber found a home late last season on the strong side after a position switch. Holloman showed he can be a playmaker in the preseason and played well in last season's finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys drafted Hitchens in the fourth round in hopes he could be Lee’s backup, but then Lee got hurt. Hitchens has to be a main special teams’ contributor, as do the rest of the backups if they hope to make the final roster.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
Safeties
Wide receivers
Cornerbacks
Tight ends
With the start of training camp coming next week, we review the five biggest position battles with the Dallas Cowboys.

Middle linebacker

The favorite: Justin Durant

The contenders: Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman and Rolando McClain.

Outlook: With Sean Lee out for the season with a torn ACL, the Cowboys turned to Durant to become the Mike linebacker. He’s got experience at the position with the Cowboys and the Jacksonville Jaguars (13 starts). Whether he's good at the position is another story. The Cowboys do like Durant's ability to play the run, but are unsure about his pass-coverage skills. There are younger players behind Durant in draft pick Hitchens, who was selected to back up Lee. Hitchens might not be ready to move into this role full-time at this stage of his development. Holloman can play two of the three linebacker spots in the 4-3, yet, his inexperience is a concern. McClain is another possibility; he's coming out of retirement and a failed workout with the Baltimore Ravens this spring. If McClain can get into shape mentally and physically, he’s the wild card and might push Durant in some ways.

Who wins?: Durant maintains the spot for now, however, this might change as the season progresses. Given his injury history, Hitchens is somebody to watch closely this summer. It will be Lee's spot longterm, regardless.

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.

McClain
If that holds up, then the Cowboys might have found the guy to man the middle linebacker spot that opened when Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May. The Cowboys mostly worked veteran Justin Durant at Lee's spot in the organized team activities and minicamp, but dabbled with rookie Anthony Hitchens and second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman at the spot.

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.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:
Away we go:

@toddarcher: He will go on the refused to report list if he does not show and is not cut and the Cowboys would gain a spot on the 90-man roster in his absence. I want to get more into the "why" on Orton's absence. I don't believe it's unhappiness with his contract. I don't think he is looking to go anywhere else. I truly believe he doesn't want to play. But if the Cowboys don't cut him, then he might have to play. We all should be so burned to have to come back and earn $3 million for a season in which he might not play a snap. Orton can skip the first week of camp before the Cowboys would be able to come after some of his signing bonus money. If he retired, then he would have to repay the team $3.4 million. Would you want to write that check? Would you be willing to give up about $300,000 in fines, de-escalators and still make excellent money? I believe we'll see Orton sometime in late July in California. @toddarcher: No, because those aren't his strengths either. He can run with running backs and tight ends. When he plays with confidence, he is fine. He had a solid offseason in coverage, improving as the OTAs and minicamp went along. Now that doesn't mean anything when the pads come on but there were some encouraging signs. Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus made it sound like Carter is much more into the process of learning everything he needs to learn. That's a good thing. He's just not built to be a run stopper/pass-rusher. The weak-side backer in this scheme has to be the playmaker. Think Lance Briggs in Chicago. Carter has those skills, but can he put it all together? I'm not sure, but he did some good things in the spring. @toddarcher: As an Aussie, I was expecting a Mat McBriar question. Oh well. The Cowboys had nine picks. Do I think all nine will make the 53-man roster? No. I'll make Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens and Devin Street locks. I like Ben Gardner, Ahmad Dixon and Terrance Mitchell to make it as seventh rounders. I think Ken Bishop and Will Smith will have chances too, but I'm just playing a numbers game right now. Then there are the undrafted rookies, like Tyler Patmon, Ben Malena and Davin Coleman. The Cowboys look to have some rookies who can contribute if not this year, then in the future. @toddarcher: I've asked and was told no. I think his day is done and I think the Cowboys want to see what they already have. There's something about Babin that just doesn't fit. He has been in a ton of spots the last couple of years. Teams keep biting on his talent. The Cowboys are content with their defensive line mix. @toddarcher: If you think about it, it is their base package. They will play more nickel defense than base package just because of what you said. It's all dependent on personnel groupings. If teams want to line up with a fullback or two tight ends, you'll see their base defense. If they want to spread the field, they'll go with a nickel look. The Cowboys feel like they're covered at cornerback with Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. They like their defensive line rotation, although there are a lot of questions simply based on the untested or unknown players added in the offseason or coming back from injuries. But at the end of the day, Rod Marinelli will be in a nickel defense 60-65 percent of the snaps. 

Minicamp observations: Hamilton shines

June, 19, 2014
Jun 19
5:00
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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 -- With middle linebacker Sean Lee out for the season because of a torn ACL, the Cowboys are using Justin Durant and Anthony Hitchens as possible replacements.

Lee
There are options on the free-agent market, but for now, the Cowboys are trying internal replacements.

"No, I'm not confident," owner Jerry Jones said about what he has on the roster at that position. "But there is a good chance we will be able to stay within the personnel we've got, but I don't want to preclude anything because a lot of the evaluation of where we are there is going on right now as well as when we get to training camp. It also has to do with any circumstances that may come up away from the team. All of that is a given. If we had to play with the players we've got, I feel good that we could line up against San Francisco."

Lee was hurt on the first day of the organized team activities last month and has already undergone surgery. Team officials refuse to rule Lee out for the season because a roster move isn't needed at this stage of the offseason and there is a slim chance he could return late in the 2014 season.

With Lee gone, the Cowboys are mixing and matching several players at different linebacker spots.

"It's disappointing to lose any key player out there, but certainly he's a very key player for us," Jones said of Lee. "But we've had to get used to playing without him, so I can't say it's a complete shocker that we're going to be lining up the first part of the season and playing without him because we have had in our plans for the last several years, what if you lose a guy like him in the middle of the season or down near the end of the season. As much as we'll miss him, we'll go on and I'm confident we're going to line up and do well at our linebacker (position), one way or the other. I don't have the answers on how we're going to get there. Some of it is going to have to develop with some of these guys who are here and how they progress in training camp."

Workload unlikely to change for Tony Romo

June, 17, 2014
Jun 17
10:30
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IRVING, Texas -- Through the organized team activities, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has been kept out of competitive drills as well as some individual work as he recovers from December back surgery.

Romo
With the Cowboys' minicamp starting Tuesday, Romo will continue down the same road. Romo has said recently he expects to be 100 percent within a few weeks, but that time frame comes after the Cowboys' offseason is over.

"We'll take him day-by-day like we do with all the other guys," Garrett said last week, "but I don't see it changing dramatically."

Romo has gone through walkthrough drills with the first-team offense and thrown individual routes with wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. He has not taken a snap in 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 drills. He has also sat out of the quarterback's footwork drills as the team attempts to protect him from jarring motions as much as possible.

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Romo will not be the only Cowboy to likely be limited because of injury during the three-day minicamp. Wide receiver L'Damian Washington (shoulder), wide receiver Devin Street (quadriceps bruise), safety Matt Johnson (hamstring), linebacker DeVonte Holloman, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, defensive end Ben Gardner (groin), defensive tackle Amobi Okoye (illness), defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee), defensive tackle Chris Whaley (knee), wide receiver Dwayne Harris (shoulder), defensive end George Selvie (shoulder), defensive end Caesar Rayford (shoulder) have been either slowed by injury during all or part of the offseason program.

Johnson took part in just one OTA before his hamstring tightened up. Because of his history (he missed his rookie season with recurring hamstring injuries) the Cowboys have wanted to protect Johnson. He missed last season because of foot surgery.

He is hoping to take part in the minicamp in some fashion.

"I've just been making sure it's good to go," Johnson said. "I think we're being over-cautious but I feel good."

Cornerback Terrance Mitchell, one of the Cowboys' five seventh-round picks, will take part in team drills for the first time since the rookie minicamp in May. League rules prevented him from showing up before June 13 because Oregon had not graduated.

OTA observations: Pump up the volume

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
5:49
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys pumped up the volume at Tuesday's organized team activity, playing music throughout the workout, ranging from Run DMC to heavy metal.

Coach Jason Garrett said he has used music in past OTAs in 2-minute situations, but this was the first practice in which the music played almost through the entire practice.

"It puts you in the game," passing game coordinator Scott Linehan said. "You've got to communicate in the game. It's not always perfect. When you're out here in the spacious practice facility with nobody yelling or screaming at you it's like golf. You don't have to worry or think about distractions. You've got to learn how to play when you've got 100,000 people screaming down your neck and doing it without letting it bother you, so I think it's really good work."

On to some more observations:
  • Linehan said Brandon Weeden has had his best week of practice. With Tony Romo sitting and Kyle Orton absent, Caleb Hanie had his best day in the sessions open to the media. He completed all but two of his throws in team drills and one was a throwaway while he was under pressure. He connected with Devin Street near the sideline, putting the ball on a dime to where Street could keep his feet inbounds.
  • Weeden's best throw was a play-action dig to wide receiver Terrance Williams, putting the ball just a little low to keep it away from cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who was trailing on the play.
  • The timing Romo and Jason Witten have is almost always impeccable. You can see the small difference when Romo isn't in there. Weeden was unable to get enough loft on a corner route to Witten with linebacker Bruce Carter in coverage. The throw was more on the line and Witten couldn't get both hands on it. With a little more air, Witten would have made the catch.
  • The struggles continued for cornerback B.W. Webb. On two of three passes he was beaten by Tim Benford and Cole Beasley. On the second play Beasley was able to change direction so quickly that Webb lost his leverage and gave up a big gain.
  • Backup left tackle Darrion Weems did a nice job of kicking out defensive end Martez Wilson on a Lance Dunbar run to beat a blitz from the defense.
  • Backup tight end Gavin Escobar had a good day after missing the open session last week with what he described as a tweaked back. He plucked a Hanie pass away with Jakar Hamilton closing fast, making sure the safety did not have a chance to break up the play. Later working in motion he was able to get inside leverage with a hard sell to the outside for a decent completion from Dustin Vaughan.
  • DeVonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens did not take part in team drills. Holloman has been slowed by a hamstring strain. Undrafted rookie Dontavis Sapp was able to get more work at backup middle linebacker.
  • Receiver Dwayne Harris was kept out of team drills as a receiver as he continues to come back from offseason shoulder surgery. He was able to handle the punt return duties. Harris said he will not do any team drills on offense until training camp.
  • The Cowboys signed defensive end Dartwan Bush, who attended the rookie minicamp on a tryout basis, and will place cornerback Jocquel Skinner on injured reserve with a knee injury.

Lee surgery scheduled for Thursday

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
4:11
PM ET
IRVING, Texas – Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee is scheduled to undergo surgery on Thursday for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Coach Jason Garrett said he anticipates the surgery to be done by the Cowboys’ medical staff and would not close the door on Lee returning later in the season.

“We’ll see what the surgery indicates and we’ll make our decisions from there,” Garrett said.

If the Cowboys place Lee on injured reserve, it would end his season. The Cowboys could put him on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, which would keep him out of the first six games and give him another six-week window in which to potentially practice and return.

The Cowboys will not have to make a decision until it is time to go to training camp. Lee remains on the 90-man roster. The normal recovery is 8-10 months.

Lee suffered the injury on May 27 in the Cowboys’ first organized team activity when his knee buckled as he attempted to track down a running back on a screen pass. Rookie guard Zack Martin landed on Lee, but the Cowboys believe Lee suffered the injury before there was contact.

San Diego Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram tore his ACL last offseason and returned for the final four regular-season games and two playoff contests. Ingram is younger and does not have Lee’s injury history.

Lee suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in spring practice in his senior season at Penn State, causing him to miss the year. He partially tore his left ACL in his fifth year, which played a part in why the Cowboys were able to select him in the second round of the 2010 draft.

Lee has yet to play in a full season with the Cowboys. He missed two games as a rookie with a hamstring injury. He missed one game in 2011 with a dislocated wrist but played most of the year with a bulky cast. He missed 10 games in 2012 because of a toe injury that required surgery. He missed five games last year with hamstring and neck injuries.

The Cowboys are working Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman and rookie Anthony Hitchens at Lee’s spot.

“I just think we want to go in there and do the surgery, get it done right, get him well and then make those kinds of decisions,” Garrett said. “Typically doctors will give you a timetable and you see what’s reasonable and you make your best roster move.”

Five Wonders: Durant a starter or gone?

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
9:00
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- With the Dallas Cowboys holding their final open-to-the-media organized team activity today at Valley Ranch, what better time than now to bring back Five Wonders?

[+] EnlargeJustin Durant
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Cowboys could use Justin Durant to fill in for Sean Lee or look to go younger at the position.
I believe Justin Durant will be the opening day starter at middle linebacker with Sean Lee out for the year. He has the most experience. He was OK in his spot work there last year before getting hurt himself. But let's say things don't go well for him in training camp and the preseason and he outplayed by DeVonte Holloman or Anthony Hitchens. I wonder if it would be worth it to keep him around. If he is cut (or traded) then the move would save $1.25 million against the cap. Every little bit of room helps. I know what you're saying. The Cowboys can't entrust the position to two players with little to no experience. Well, why not? They did it last year when they cut safety Will Allen and named J.J. Wilcox the starter. Wilcox almost immediately got hurt and that put undrafted rookie Jeff Heath in the starting lineup. Was cutting Allen a mistake last year? Perhaps it was, but he did not play that well and he was not a big special teams help. It would be a risky move, but Durant will not be around in 2015. Is it better to get Holloman or Hitchens the work with the future in mind? The coaches who are fighting for their jobs might think otherwise, but it's something to ponder.

• One of the biggest benefits of practicing against a team in training camp is to break up the monotony. You hear players all the time say they just enjoy seeing another color jersey on the practice field. So that's what the Cowboys will get when they work against the Oakland Raiders, as expected, in Oxnard, Caliornia. But I wonder if there is more of a benefit in the player evaluation side of things. In addition to the monotony of camp, players can figure out offensive and defensive tendencies. Players have been known to see the practice scripts over the years, which give them a heads up as to what to expect. When that happens, they'll obviously look better than perhaps they are. With the Raiders bringing in fresh schemes on offense and defense, a corner won't be as familiar with the routes, splits and speed and a receiver and offensive tackle won't know every move he'll see from a defensive end. It will only be two practices, but those sessions figure to be the most hotly contested of the summer and the personnel department will have some fresh tape to see.

• I'll admit I don't know much about Terrell McClain. He did not play very much for the Houston Texans last year. The Cowboys signed him to a modest deal that included a $300,000 signing bonus. But I wonder if McClain will be this year's version of George Selvie. Last summer Selvie had the look of a training camp body with the injuries the Cowboys suffered along the defensive line. He ended up not only making the team but he started every game and had a career-high seven sacks. McClain has been one of the more impressive players in team drills during the OTAs. The line has had a hard time blocking him. He has had to play the three-technique mostly because of Henry Melton's recovery from knee surgery, and has shown the ability to pressure the quarterback and make a tackle or two for a loss. I think he ends up as the starting nose tackle on this defense when Melton is back on the field.

• The Cowboys finally found a home for Kyle Wilber late last season when they were forced to move him to outside linebacker. He started the final six games on the strong side and had 31 of his 42 tackles. He also had two tackles for loss and two quarterback pressures. He has been working with the first team in defense so far this offseason and looks the part. But last week's OTA offered up another opportunity for Wilber that I had not previously expected. Perhaps it was due to a shortage of defensive ends because a number of them were sitting out the team drills, but Wilber moved to defensive end in two-minute drills. I wonder if he can play a split role the way the New York Giants use Mathias Kiwanuka. He played linebacker in his career and would put his hand on the ground in pass-rushing situations. I'm not saying Wilber will be Kiwanuka, whom I believe has been a little underrated, but Wilber can add to his versatility by showing the ability to play both spots.

• What would a Wonders be without checking in on a contract situation? I wonder if the Cowboys should look at extending the offers to receivers Dwayne Harris and/or Cole Beasley this summer. What? Hear me out. Both players are expected to be restricted free agents after this season. The bottom tender offer for a restricted free agent this year was about $1.4 million. The Cowboys thought that was too high of a price for Phillip Tanner and chose not to tender an offer to the running back this year. That number will go about in 2015 when the team will have to make decisions on Harris and Beasley. I do believe it will be easier to justify putting the tender on Harris because he is a valuable special teamer in the return and coverage games. Beasley is a punt returner, but not nearly as effective as Harris. But Beasley will have a role in this offense because of his work in the slot. It should be noted that he is only running routes in the slot during the offseason, so with that comes some limitation on what he would be paid in the future. Can the Cowboys figure out a way to give Beasley a little bump in pay this year, a good base salary in 2015, but less than the projected RFA tender and buy out his unrestricted free agency year? It sure would seem possible and it would guarantee Beasley a job in the future with a quarterback that really believes in him in Tony Romo.
GRAPEVINE, Texas -- You can most likely scratch free agent linebacker Brian Urlacher off the Cowboys’ list of potential players to replace Sean Lee.

“No,” was Jerry Jones’ response Tuesday afternoon when asked if the Cowboys are working on a deal for Urlacher.

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Lee is out for the season with a torn ACL and team officials are still determining when surgery will occur.

“We’re working through it,” said Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ executive vice president. “I mean obviously we’re not playing football games tomorrow and we’re not going to training camp tomorrow. We’re just taking a long hard look at anything.”

Replacing Lee will be difficult.

Fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman (a 2013 sixth-round pick), and eight-year veteran Justin Durant are the in-house candidates to replace Lee.

The Cowboys are working with their current roster first to see if a starter can emerge for the 2014 season. If not, then signing a free agent is a possibility.

Linebacker Ernie Sims, who played with the Cowboys last season and is another possible replacement, signed with the Arizona Cardinals on Tuesday.

“Until we decide one way or the other what we’re going to do with players that are on our team we really hate to comment on things like that,” Stephen Jones said.

Urlacher, a 13-year veteran with the Chicago Bears, didn’t play last season but is open to returning for the right opportunity. Urlacher knows the 4-3 scheme because he played under it in Chicago with Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

“Someone actually tweeted me something about it,” defensive tackle Henry Melton said when asked about his former teammate with the Bears. “I haven’t heard any truth behind (Urlacher playing) it but 'Lach' knows the defense and he would be a good replacement, I feel like he would fit in.”
IRVING, Texas -- Don’t buy that Brian Urlacher, Jonathan Vilma or insert-veteran-linebacker-here jersey just yet.

Before the Dallas Cowboys look outside the building for MLB Sean Lee’s replacement, they want to see what Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens can do.

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“We have some young guys we feel good about, so we want to give those guys every opportunity,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We have some veteran players who weren't completely healthy all last year, so we want to make sure they have an opportunity to work at some of those spots inside and just see who on our football team right now rises to the occasion. We've got to make sure we give them every opportunity. We’re always looking at the landscape of players -- free agents on the street, trade opportunities, anybody who we think can help our football team at any position. We’re always doing that. But we like the guys we have right now and the competition we have going.”

Durant took the first-team snaps at middle linebacker during Monday's organized team activities. He started one game at middle linebacker last year when Lee was out with a hamstring issue. Holloman started two games last year after Lee suffered a neck injury.

Garrett has yet to rule Lee out for the season, saying only that Lee has a “serious knee injury.” Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on May 27 in the first OTA. Garrett said the team is still developing a plan for Lee. The team generally waits a few weeks to perform a surgery so the swelling goes down.

In the offseason, the Cowboys cut veteran DE DeMarcus Ware and veteran WR Miles Austin and opted to not re-sign veteran DT Jason Hatcher. The Cowboys passed on free-agent DEs Jared Allen and Julius Peppers and did not look at veteran safeties.

Last year, the Cowboys signed offensive lineman Brian Waters the week before the season started. He had not played in 2012, but in 2013 he played in seven games for Dallas (with five starts) before he tore his triceps.

“If you look at our team, we have a really young roster,” Garrett said. “If you go position by position on both sides of the ball, there aren't many guys who have played that long in the National Football League, and we think that’s good. Some of our best players are guys that have been around a little bit, and we think that’s good, too. We’re always looking for a combination of veteran guys who have been around a little bit and younger guys who are developing into their prime, and then you have to have some role players, as well. You start with 90 and then you try to make the best decisions you can with the players you have. And then if there’s a reason to go outside at some point, you go ahead and do that.”
IRVING, Texas -- The signing of a fourth-round draft pick does not normally generate much interest, but Anthony Hitchens went from a hopeful backup to a potential starter when Sean Lee was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Hitchens will sign a four-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys today as the team enters the second week of organized team activities. Hitchens is the seventh of the Cowboys’ nine draft picks to agree to terms. He will receive a signing bonus of $434,864.

The only two picks left unsigned are first- and second-round picks Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence.

The Cowboys have worked Hitchens at middle linebacker since Lee was hurt on May 27, but it is a big jump for a rookie to make, and Hitchens is new to the position. He played weakside linebacker at Iowa. The Cowboys will also look at DeVonte Holloman, who started two games at middle linebacker last season, and Justin Durant, who started one, in Lee’s absence. They have yet to look at the free-agent market for help.
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said he believes Sean Lee will be able to return to form in the future after the middle linebacker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Tuesday’s organized team activity.

Lee
“He’s the last person in the world I would bet against,” Stephen Jones said during an appearance on 1310 The Ticket in Dallas. “There’s no one more intense, more driven and more determined than Sean Lee.”

Jones said he and Jerry Jones had a conversation with Lee since the injury and Lee is “more determined than ever. That’s just the way he’s built.”

Last August the Cowboys signed Lee to a contract extension worth as much as $51 million provided he could stay healthy. He missed five games last season with hamstring and neck injuries, and has yet to play a full season since entering the NFL in 2010.

Lee’s $2.5 million base salary in 2015 is guaranteed. By missing this season, he will miss out on a chance to add an extra $1.5 million to that base salary.

The Cowboys will look at rookie Anthony Hitchens and veterans DeVonte Holloman and Justin Durant to replace Lee this season, but Jones does not doubt Lee will make it back.

“You’ve got to believe at some point something good will happen to him and happen to us,” Stephen Jones said.

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