Dallas Cowboys: Henry Melton

Upon Further Review: Defense shines

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
1:30
PM ET
The Dallas Cowboys moved to 1-1 with a commanding 26-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday afternoon.

After every game we take a look back in Upon Further Review.

1. After training camp there were plenty of concerns about the defense from its pass rush to secondary play. Losing Sean Lee at middle linebacker was also a major blow to a defense that ranked last in 2013. Two weeks into the season, the defense is doing just fine. In the victory over the Titans, safety Barry Church had a pick, linebacker Rolando McClain also had one, Morris Claiborne almost picked one off and corners, Sterling Moore and Brandon Carr had strong performances. Moore knocked down several passes and Carr did a solid job in one-on-one coverage. The pass rush also got to Jake Locker numerous times and the Cowboys defense was on point. The unit was more physical this week and the increased snaps for defensive tackle Henry Melton helped. There was even a Kyle Wilber sighting as he obtained half a sack on a bull rush move.

2. Melton didn’t start against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, but in Week 2 he became a starter and showed the Cowboys’ coaches why he was worth signing in free agency. Melton’s tipped pass led to a McClain interception and he picked up a half-sack when he flushed Locker out of the pocket. Melton, using the three-technique along the defensive line, was able to push the pocket and he didn’t face a lot of double-teams. That might change this week when the Cowboys take on the St. Louis Rams.

3. DeMarco Murray was fantastic on Sunday. He rushed for 167 yards on 29 carries with one touchdown. Murray broke 11 tackles and despite a fumble for the second consecutive week, was able to brush it aside and run with a fury downfield. Murray has adopted the one-cut technique from position coach Gary Brown. In years past, Brown noticed the Cowboys’ running backs were doing too much dancing when they got to the hole, so Brown told the backs to get what they can. If the hole dictated one or two yards, so be it. Murray isn’t afraid to get just one or two yards, however, the offensive line is getting a good push into the second level of the defense, allowing him to make that one-cut and get up field.

4. Last week, left tackle Tyron Smith played a solid game though he allowed one sack and was penalized twice. Right tackle Doug Free gave up two sacks in the first half and looked over matched. As the game progressed, the veteran took over and handled outside linebacker Derrick Morgan and defensive end Ropati Pitoitua one-on-one with little trouble. There were times he had tight end Jason Witten lined up with him, but Free was able to produce a strong effort overall.

5. One of the biggest plays of the game came from Witten. With Dallas leading 16-10 late in the third quarter, Tony Romo floated a pass into the flat over a leaping defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. The pass was too high for Witten to haul in and safety Bernard Pollard caught the ball. Witten had the presence of mind to strip Pollard and force an incompletion. If Pollard maintains control of the ball he probably gets a pick-six and the Titans take the lead.
Defensive tackle Henry Melton, the Cowboys' prized offseason acquisition, was hobbled with knee and groin issues in the preseason.

He missed the entire preseason, which is why he played only 26 snaps against San Francisco in Week 1. The Cowboys want to work him in slowly to ensure he doesn't aggravate the groin injury. Jeremy Mincey led the defensive line with 43 snaps. Rolando McClain played 44 snaps and did a good job of providing a physical presence. Kyle Wilber, a projected starter at linebacker much of training camp, had only four snaps.

Here's a look at the snap counts for each of the Cowboys' defensive players on Sunday:


J.J. Wilcox: 58
Brandon Carr: 57
Barry Church: 51
Bruce Carter: 48
Morris Claiborne: 47
Justin Durant: 47
Rolando McClain: 44
Jeremy Mincey: 43
Sterling Moore: 39
Tyrone Crawford: 33
Nick Hayden: 33
George Selvie: 27
Henry Melton: 26
Ken Bishop: 21
Lavar Edwards: 15
Jeff Heath: 7
Anthony Hitchens: 5
Kyle Wilber: 4
Henry Melton, the Dallas Cowboys' key offseason defensive acquisition, said he’s ready for the season opener against San Francisco after not playing in the preseason.

Melton
Melton said his knee and his groin, which he tweaked during training camp, are fine and he expects to start Sunday against the 49ers. Melton said he’s not sure how much he will play against San Francisco but won’t be opposed to the coaching staff putting him on a play limit.

“I’m just going to go with the flow,” Melton said. “If they want to hold me to a certain amount of plays, I’m just going to listen to them.”

For the Cowboys to have any chance of having a solid defense this season, they need Melton to play well.

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The 2012 Pro Bowl defensive tackle is capable of being disruptive against the run with his ability to penetrate, while also providing a good pass rush and collapsing the middle of the pocket.

That's especially important against a physical offense like San Francisco, which prefers to use its running game to control the game. Last season, the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in rushing attempts (505) and yards per game (137.6) and fourth with 18 touchdowns.

“The biggest thing for (Melton),” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “is to get out there and practice and go against a live opponent. He was able to do some of that today.”
FRISCO, Texas -- Before the Dallas Cowboys' brass left for Miami, they updated the media on a few injured players.

  • Team executive vice president Stephen Jones said defensive tackle Henry Melton (groin) will not play in the third preseason game on Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins. Jones said the goal is to get most, if not all of the injured players ready for the regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.

  • Middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who left Tuesday's practice with cramping and missed the next day with soreness, is expected to play against the Dolphins.

    "When you sit out for a year, and he didn't really get back into it full bore, until a couple of weeks before camp, so its going to take some time," Jones said.

  • Team officials haven't decided on cornerback Morris Claiborne's status for the Dolphins game as he's still recovering from a shoulder injury.


    Claiborne, a projected starter with Orlando Scandrick suspended the first four games, hasn't played in any preseason games because of health issues.

    Jones said he's not worried about Claiborne's long-term durability given his history of health problems.

    "Not really, I think at the end of the day he's played in a lot of games for us," Jones said. "And I think he'll do well out there, obviously you have to be conservative with your players now. The injury situation not only around here but around the league. We'll let this play out and I think he'll be ready for the 49ers."
  • IRVING, Texas -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys:

    1. If you choose to be positive, there are some scenarios where the Cowboys’ defensive line could be solid instead of a disaster.

    Spencer
    Melton
    It all starts with defensive tackles Henry Melton (knee, groin) and Terrell McClain (ankle) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee) getting healthy. Spencer and Melton can be good players and McClain can be solid.

    Add defensive ends George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey to the mix, along with rookie DeMarcus Lawrence after he returns from his broken foot, and the Cowboys would be pretty happy with that rotation.

    It will require considerable good fortune to get Spencer and Melton each playing at a high level early this season, but if it happened, the Cowboys would have a pretty good defensive line rotation without much drop off between the starters and backups.

    2. The cornerback situation the first month of the season will be dire.

    Morris Claiborne had a strong start to training camp, but he hasn’t been able to sustain it. Knee and shoulder injuries have limited him since the first week of practice.

    The Cowboys are trying to get him ready for the first game against San Francisco, but we have no idea how long his body will hold up. They can’t trust him to be healthy enough to play, which is a concern since Orlando Scandrick will miss the first month of the season after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

    Heading into the opener, Brandon Carr is the only proven cornerback on the roster the Cowboys know will be ready for the opener. That's scary.

    3. Receiver Jamar Newsome had a nice game against Baltimore, as did fifth-round pick Devin Street.

    Tim Benford has been on the practice squad each of the last two years, Chris Boyd has good size and potential and LaRon Byrd has been a good special-teams player in the past.

    Street, a fifth-round pick, will make the team, but it’s going to be tough for any of the other receivers to make it. The Cowboys will probably keep five receivers: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris and Street. One of the other guys will have to be a beast on special teams to make the roster.

    Key number: 20

    The Cowboys had only 20 drives of 10 plays or more last season. Only Miami and the New York Giants had fewer. It was the result of the Cowboys' struggles on third down, which prevented them from sustaining drives, and their inconsistent running game. Too many times the Cowboys were in third-and-long situations that didn’t put them in position to convert.

    They must do better this season to protect their defense and keep them off the field.

    Player to Watch: Tyler Clutts

    Jason Garrett has talked all training camp about establishing a physical presence and how much a true fullback will help the Cowboys do that.

    Clutts has been doing a good job working with DeMarco Murray and taking advantage of his limited opportunities, but to win the job he must prove himself more valuable to the offense than the third receiver or second tight end.

    He needs to be a core player on special teams, and he needs to be a difference-maker on the 12 to 15 crucial goal-line and short-yardage plays the Cowboys will have this season.
    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.
    OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 9 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

    1. The general thought about the Cowboys’ defense seems to be that it can’t be any worse than it was last year.

    Well, it can.

    The first few practices have provided no indication this defense will be better than last year’s version that allowed 415.3 yards and 27 points per game. It’s not about a lack of effort, it’s about a lack of talent.

    What players worry opposing offensive coordinators? Henry Melton? Brandon Carr? Orlando Scandrick?

    Melton has the best pedigree, but he’s fighting through the mental hurdles of the knee injury that cost him 13 games last season. He's still too worried about his knee to play with reckless regard for his body, which is what it takes to succeed at defensive tackle.

    And when he did play his best football in Chicago, he had Julius Peppers at defensive end and Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher at linebacker. No one remotely resembling those players starts for the Cowboys.

    Talk to enough coaches and staff members at training camp and they’ll tell you the scheme has been tweaked and there’s even more emphasis on teaching than usual because the Cowboys don’t have enough talent to overcome poor technique or mental mistakes.

    None of that guarantees a better performance.

    2. For the Cowboys to end this wretched four-year streak of not making the playoffs, they must play better in the fourth quarter.

    Jason Garrett emphasizes it to the players regularly -- and he’s right.

    Last year, the Cowboys led San Diego, Denver, Detroit and Green Bay in the fourth quarter and lost. They had double-digit leads over Detroit and Green Bay.

    In the last three years, the Cowboys have been within seven points of their opponent -- ahead or behind -- in 38 of 48 games. Their record in those 38 games is 20-18.

    The Cowboys won the fourth quarter seven times last season. They were 6-1 in those games with the only loss coming against Denver.

    Their margin for error this season will be slim again, in part, because of the defense. They’ll need to win a lot of fourth quarters to make the playoffs.

    3. Garrett and playcaller Scott Linehan insist the Cowboys will run the ball this season.

    Before you roll your eyes, understand this season they’re equipped to run it because of an offensive line that has been fortified with three No.1 picks in the last four years.

    Teams had no respect for the Cowboys’ running game so they often used seven defenders in coverage and still managed to contain DeMarco Murray. Play coverage this season and the Cowboys should be more than happy to punish teams with their running game -- at least that's what Garrett and Linehan want you to believe.

    More importantly, a better running game will make the passing game more efficient because the Cowboys can use play-action passes to generate big plays. Tony Romo attempted just 74 play-action passes last season, one of the league’s lowest totals.

    Key number: 1

    The Cowboys blitzed 132 times last season, one of the lowest totals in the league, and produced just one interception and nine sacks.

    Pathetic.

    Blitzes are supposed to disrupt the quarterback and force mistakes because the quarterback is making decisions under duress. Opposing quarterbacks had a 117.5 passer rating when the Cowboys blitzed last season.

    Look at the personnel and there’s no reason to think the Cowboys will be any more effective blitzing this season. Their defensive line doesn’t have a proven pass-rusher.

    The coaching staff has no idea how it's going to create pressure on the quarterback

    Player to Watch: Justin Durant

    With Sean Lee out for the season with a knee injury, recently signed Rolando McClain trying to earn trust and rookie Anthony Hitchens not ready for a starting role, Durant is making the most of his opportunity.

    Durant, who had 24 tackles for the Cowboys last season, has impressed the coaching staff with his grasp of the system and his play so far in training camp.

    He’s not going to be a difference-maker, but he’s been a solid player at various times in Jacksonville and Detroit. If he can duplicate that performance here, it would be a big help for the defense
    OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 6 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

    Johnson
    1. Matt Johnson is never going to play for the Dallas Cowboys.

    He has yet another hamstring injury -- this is three training camps in a row -- and he’s expected to miss at least a week. That said, who among us will be shocked if he misses more than that.

    The Cowboys have liked Johnson’s potential so much that they’ve kept him on the roster, even though the former fourth-round pick has never appeared in a game in his first two seasons.

    He’s been good in practice, according to coaches and teammates, but will that be enough?

    It’s hard to believe they would keep him for another year, which means paying him for a third year, if he can’t stay healthy and compete for a job. The competition at safety is taut. Every day he misses diminishes his slim odds of making the team.

    Lee
    2. Sean Lee is the kind of player you hope has success because he’s the epitome of what coaches want in a player and what players want in a teammate.

    Yes, he’s been hurt frequently. Too frequently. And the reality is the Cowboys can’t really depend on him because he hasn’t shown an ability to stay on the field.

    But his injuries are the result of bad luck -- not poor conditioning or training -- and you can tell he’s miserable about the missed time. He doesn’t have to be at training camp.

    He could be rehabbing in Dallas, but he wants to be around his teammates. He’s sitting in on meetings and film sessions. He’s doing everything the other linebackers are doing except playing.

    Not many other players would do that.

    Melton
    3. Henry Melton's knee is essentially fine from a structural perspective. Any athlete who’s had a knee injury will tell you the most difficult part of recovery is trusting the knee again.

    That’s why the preseason games will be so important to Melton, especially as an interior lineman. He must get used to players falling on his legs or banging into them.

    He must get used to the game’s physicality, and he must become adept again at maintaining his balance and staying on his feet when guys around him are falling down.

    When he does -- no matter how long it takes -- that’s when he’ll return to being a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle.

    Key Number: 71

    The Cowboys gave up 71 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season. No team allowed more.

    Super Bowl champion Seattle allowed 30. The 12 playoff teams yielded an average of 51.

    The Cowboys have no chance to win if they don’t stop the big plays. It makes it too easy for the offense. Improved safety play will help, but the Cowboys must figure out how to rush the passer and remove quarterbacks from their comfort zone.

    Player to Watch: Cole Beasley

    This is the first time Cole Beasley has ever entered training camp with outside expectations.

    He seems ready to meet them.

    He caught 39 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns last season. More important, he earned Tony Romo's trust.

    On third down, he caught 14 of the 18 passes directed toward him for 146 yards, 11 first downs and a touchdown. When the Cowboys use Beasley in the slot on third downs along with Jason Witten at tight end, it gives Romo a pair of players with good hands who can work underneath and make first downs.

    Beasley played only 247 snaps last year. Miles Austin, who had 541 snaps, is gone. Look for Beasley to gobble up a bunch of Austin’s playing time, which means he could easily catch 60 passes this season.
    OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 4 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

    1) It was one play, just about as meaningless as can be, considering it was the first day players wore pads, but Morris Claiborne wanted to establish a tone.

    Claiborne
    First, he locked down Terrance Williams, forcing an incompletion. Then he jumped up and started woofing. Eventually, the players were separated.

    It was the first time since he arrived that we’ve seen that type of feistiness from Claiborne.

    Hey, whatever it takes. He’s been the epitome of a bust his first two seasons, allowing 70 completions in 117 attempts with only two interceptions and 13 pass deflections.

    For a guy who was supposed to be the best defensive player in the 2012 draft that’s not nearly good enough.

    Jason Garrett said he’s improved significantly during the offseason. It’s time for him to take it to the field.

    Better secondary play is the fastest way for this defense to improve, since their pass rush remains suspect.

    Smith
    2) The Cowboys are moving closer to a long-term agreement with left tackle Tyron Smith, who’s going to deserve every nickel of whatever he gets.

    Smith is man-handling the defensive ends on this roster, the way DeMarcus Ware used to destroy tackles, including Smith, during training camp.

    Smith is only 23, so don’t be surprised if he signs a deal that’s nine or 10 years long. When he does, it’ll be interesting to see if Dez Bryant can continue to ignore his contract situation and play well.

    After all, the club has already taken care of Sean Lee, who was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft. Bryant was the Cowboys’ first-round pick.

    3) Kyle Wilber spent his first two seasons bouncing around between outside linebacker in the 3-4 and weakside defensive end.

    Injuries last season created some playing time for him at strongside linebacker and the Cowboys suddenly found a player.

    Wilber has the strength to hold the edge and consistently force running plays inside, in part because of the time he spent at defensive end, and he made several important plays for the Cowboys last season.

    He finished the season with 44 tackles and two sacks, while starting six games.

    34

    The Cowboys were tied for 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks. Only five teams had fewer.

    Their sack total was 10 fewer than the average 2013 playoff team.

    Teams that don’t get many sacks often say they’re overrated. Well, they’re not. Pressure is good, but sacks are a momentum-changer and usually result in a punt at the end of the drive.

    You must rush the passer and put quarterbacks under duress, or it’s hard to force turnovers and win games.

    The Cowboys are counting on defensive Henry Melton, who missed the last 13 games with a torn ACL, to provide pressure up the middle. He has been a terrific pass-rusher, and they need him to command double teams to help other players get to the quarterback.

    Player to Watch: Gavin Escobar

    The Cowboys wasted Escobar’s rookie season. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson.

    It’s dumb to ask a tight end who should excel at working from the slot and creating mismatches with his size to be the same type of player as Jason Witten.

    Escobar can help this team by making plays downfield and giving Tony Romo one more vertical threat.

    He caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He can be a playmaker, if Scott Linehan gives him a chance to do it. If not, he’ll be a wasted pick.
    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.

    Defensive line

    On the roster: George Selvie, Terrell McClain, Henry Melton, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Anthony Spencer, Jeremy Mincey, Nick Hayden, Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman, Ben Gardner, Amobi Okoye, Martez Wilson, Dartwan Bush, Chris Whaley, Caesar Rayford, Ben Bass

    Locks: Selvie, McClain, Melton, Lawrence, Crawford, Mincey

    Inside track: Spencer, Hayden, Bishop, Gardner, Coleman, Bass

    Need help: Wilson, Coleman, Bush, Whaley, Rayford,Okoye

    How many fit? The Cowboys needed 20 defensive linemen last year because of injuries and a revolving door of newcomers who mostly struggled. The Cowboys opened the year last season with 10 defensive linemen on the 53-man roster and ended the year with that many, but the only constants were Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, Edgar Jones, Hayden and Selvie.

    Selvie
    Ten seems to be the right number again in 2014 as the Cowboys plan to attack with numbers if not known commodities. Spencer and Okoye could be candidates to open the year on the physically unable to perform list because of injuries. Hayden started every game last year, but he is not a lock to make the roster. Selvie had seven sacks last year but he is not a lock to start. Crawford did not play last year because of an Achilles’ injury. Melton is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. McClain had a productive spring but can he carry that over to a full-time role?

    The Cowboys gave up their third-round pick to move up for Lawrence, and he will fight with Mincey for a starting spot. He looks the part, but he has a lot to learn. Going against Tyron Smith might be a good thing. The Cowboys are betting that Mincey will be able to find a niche as a quality pass rusher.

    Bass is entering his third training camp. He has flashed ability but hasn’t been able to stay healthy in his first two years. Gardner, Bishop and Coleman could be viewed as a part of the future as the line gets the overhaul the offensive line began in 2011. Rayford looks the part but has to have a good preseason to earn a spot. Wilson has some pass rush to him.

    Losing Ware and Hatcher and possibly not having Spencer until the seventh game of the season, this group does not have high expectations. Rod Marinelli kind of likes it that way, but he has to somehow coax pass rush out of players who have yet to do it on a consistent basis.

    The series:

    Quarterbacks
    Specialists
    Running backs
    Safeties
    Wide receivers
    Cornerbacks
    Tight ends
    Linebackers
    Offensive line

    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.

    Camp preview: Dallas Cowboys

    July, 17, 2014
    Jul 17
    10:00
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    » NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

    NFL Nation's Todd Archer examines the three biggest issues facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp:

    The health of Romo: Ever since he became the starter in 2006, how Tony Romo goes is how the Cowboys go. He is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, but he was able to do much more this offseason than he did in 2013, when he had a cyst removed. The Cowboys kept Romo out of any competitive drills in the spring in order for him to be fully healthy by the time they got to training camp. Using last year's camp as a guide, Romo did not miss a day of work, and the Cowboys don't believe he will need to be eased into the full practice load this summer either. Because a big part of Romo's game is his ability to move and create in open space, however, they will be cautious if there even hints of more soreness than just the aches and pains of training camp. All offseason, the Cowboys have not expressed any worry about Romo, who turned 34 in April, being able to return to form. He will get his first chance to show it on the practice fields in Oxnard, California. If he can play at a high level -- he had 32 touchdown passes and 10 picks in 15 games last season -- then the Cowboys should be able to contend for a playoff spot in a division that is not as strong as it has been in the past.

    Marinelli to the rescue: The Cowboys' defense was historically bad in 2013, and they enter this season without their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware), last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) and their best playmaker (Sean Lee). Rod Marinelli takes over for Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator and will bring subtle changes in coverages, fronts and blitzes, but the core of the 4-3 scheme will remain the same as when that coaching duo was together at Tampa Bay. The Cowboys did not make any splash signings in free agency, but their most important was Henry Melton. If he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and play the way he did under Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have a chance. Marinelli also plans to lean more on cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne in man coverage, but Carr and Claiborne have to play much better in 2014 than they did in 2013. There could be as many as seven new opening day starters on defense this season than in 2013, and it is up to Marinelli to make it work. He had more talent with the Bears when he was running their defense, but the players believe in what he is selling.

    Plan of attack: From 2007 through 2012, Jason Garrett called every offensive play. In 2013, Bill Callahan was the playcaller, but he was forced to run Garrett's offense, and there were hiccups. Scott Linehan will be Romo's third playcaller in as many years, and he will have the autonomy Callahan did not have. The Cowboys are not changing schemes, but Linehan has brought on alterations to an offense that struggled on third down in 2013. Linehan leaned toward the pass in his time with the Detroit Lions, but he did have a 1,000-yard rusher in Reggie Bush last season. With the Cowboys, he has a better offensive line, better tight end (Jason Witten) and better running back (DeMarco Murray). The Cowboys aren't about to become a run-first team under Linehan, but they need to run more, especially when they have a lead in order to help end games, protect a defense filled with questions and protect Romo, who is coming off two back surgeries. Because Romo did not take any team or seven-on-seven snaps in the spring, they will need to play a little bit of catch-up in what each other likes and, perhaps more importantly, doesn't like in situational football. The Romo-Linehan relationship might be the most important the Cowboys have. They have to make it work.

    Best case/worst case: DeMarcus Lawrence

    July, 11, 2014
    Jul 11
    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.

    DeMarcus Lawrence

    Best case: He is DeMarcus Ware, circa 2005

    [+] EnlargeDeMarcus Lawrence
    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsThe Cowboys have high hopes for rookie DeMarcus Lawrence.
    For nine years, Ware was everything the Cowboys hoped he would be. He put up 119 sacks, a franchise record. He went to the Pro Bowl seven times. But Ware needed time to grow in his rookie year in 2005. He finished his rookie year with eight sacks, with his best game coming in Week 16 when he had a three-sack effort against Carolina. The Cowboys would love to get eight sacks from Lawrence as a rookie. Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer studied the last 32 edge rushers taken in the first round and saw they averaged 3.7 sacks per season. Lawrence was a second-round draft pick (albeit two spots from the first round). He will be given a chance to play a lot as a rookie. The Cowboys made a lot of additions to their defensive line in the offseason, but Lawrence is the lone true right defensive end. That distinction was why they gave up their third-round pick to get him in a trade with the Washington Redskins. He looks the part, with long arms and decent speed. He does not possess Ware’s athleticism (few do) but he if he can get eight sacks, the Cowboys' defensive line will be better than many believe and the Cowboys will have their pass-rusher of the present and the future.

    Worst case: He is chewed up by left tackles

    Rookies at any position need time. Rookie pass-rushers, as we established in the best-case scenario, need time. Lawrence will be tested in training camp by going against Tyron Smith in practice, but there has to be a hope his confidence doesn’t get damaged if Smith chews him up in the summer. If he can hold his own, then maybe that will build his confidence in getting ready to go against tackles like Jason Peters, Joe Staley and Russell Okung. The Cowboys’ approach to the defensive line this offseason has been to bring a lot of numbers. Lawrence, however, can bring the most quality, especially if Henry Melton is not fully healthy. If Lawrence doesn’t work out – or needs the normal amount of time to adjust to the NFL – then the Cowboys will have to go with quantity and throw everybody at the position from Jeremy Mincey to Tyrone Crawford to Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery. The Cowboys don’t need Lawrence to lead the defense in sacks in 2014, but he must contribute more than 3.7 sacks.

    Best case/worst case: Henry Melton

    July, 10, 2014
    Jul 10
    1:00
    PM 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 who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.

    Henry Melton

    Best-case: The reunion works

    Melton
    When Melton had Rod Marinelli as his defensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears, he was in Pro Bowl form. The Cowboys are banking on it happening, literally. They signed Melton to a one-year deal with a three-year option as a free agent. If Melton performs the way he did in his final two years -- 13 sacks in a two-year run as a starter -- then the Cowboys will gladly pick up the option, which would guarantee Melton $9 million in 2015. Melton is coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and went through individual drills in the offseason program as he continued his rehab. The Cowboys know how important he is to their defensive line. He has the best resume but played in only three games last year before getting hurt and did not have a sack. He could draw the double teams that would free up other pass rushers. Marinelli has a way of speaking a defensive lineman's language. He makes sure they are relentless and attack up the field. Marinelli helped make Jason Hatcher a Pro Bowl player last year. He never had more than 4.5 sacks in a season but put up 11 in 2012 under Marinelli. Similar production from Melton would go a long way in helping a defense with low expectations.

    Worst-case: He needs more time

    Adrian Peterson ruined it for everybody coming back from a torn ACL by being otherworldly in 2012 when he ran for 2,097 yards. He raised the expectations that everybody can come back that fast and that well. Robert Griffin III offered up the other side of the recovery. He was OK last year but not as dynamic as he was a rookie. The general thought is that a player is better the second year after the torn ACL. Players have to make physical and mental recoveries from the injury. Sometimes the mental recovery can be erased quickly with the first few hits. Other times, it takes a while for instincts to return. For the Cowboys, that would not be good because Melton is looked at as one of the kingpins of a re-made defensive line. He cannot be a question up front if the Cowboys want to be better in 2014 than they were in 2013. The Cowboys don't need him to be Warren Sapp, but he can't be average either. For Melton, that would not be good because if he needs another year, he will not cash in on that $9 million guarantee and would be a free agent in 2015 coming off two potentially so-so seasons.

    Best case/worst case: Cornerbacks

    July, 9, 2014
    Jul 9
    1:00
    PM 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 who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.

    The cornerbacks

    Best case: They lock it down

    Claiborne
    Scandrick
    Brandon Carr has said he wants to take over the league. Morris Claiborne knows he is in the fight for his career after two disappointing seasons. Orlando Scandrick was their best corner last year and perhaps their best defender this year. The Cowboys have invested in them heavily in contract and draft position. Rod Marinelli said he has not had three man-to-man corners like these guys. Carr, Claiborne and Scandrick believe they are better suited to play more man than zone, which frustrated them at times in 2013. But they weren't great at man either and the coaches did not have enough trust to let them handle receivers all over the field. Carr and Claiborne, who will have to take away the starting spot from Scandrick after losing it last year, have the physical tools to be top press corners. Scandrick is as competitive as anybody on the roster and understands route concepts the best. They have to make plays early in the season to not only build their confidence but to build the confidence of the rest of the defense.

    Worst case: No help from the pass rush

    A cornerback's job is a lot easier when the front seven can affect the quarterback. Sacks and pressures are great, but if a quarterback is afraid of the pass rush he will get rid of the ball sooner. That means there is less time for a corner to have to defend and more chances at interceptions. The Cowboys lost their all-time leader in sacks (DeMarcus Ware) and last year's leader in sacks (Jason Hatcher) in the offseason. They replaced them with a rookie second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence) and Henry Melton, who is coming back from a torn ACL. They also added numbers to the position in players like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye but they have questions. Anthony Spencer might not be able to play until the seventh week of the season. Tyrone Crawford is coming back from a torn Achilles and didn't have a sack in his rookie season. Marinelli is not known as a coordinator who brings a lot of pressure. If they can't affect the quarterback, then Carr, Scandrick and Claiborne will have a difficult time staying with receivers.

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