Dallas Cowboys: Jason Hatcher
The Cowboys had just 34 sacks, tied for 25th in the league, last season, and 11 belonged to defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who signed with Washington in the offseason. DeMarcus Ware, who had seven straight seasons with at least 10 sacks before last season, is now with Denver.
This is why the Cowboys are looking for anyone to step up and rush the passer.
Wilson, entering his fourth season, had a sack against Baltimore, and his first step has enabled him to show flashes as a pass rusher throughout training camp. The Cowboys told him his best chance to make the team was as a pass-rushing defensive end so he's committed to learning a new position.
He can handle the pass-rushing requirements, but playing the run well is an issue.
“This is the first time playing linebacker in my life. This is the first time I’ve had a defensive line coach,” said Wilson, “I’m learning that the tackle’s first step will tell me everything I need to know about what technique I should use.
“It’s not hard, but it takes time to recognize it because the game is different when your hand is on the ground. I’m trying to get to the point where I can react instinctively instead of thinking out there.”
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.
It's been written and talked about countless times in the offseason.
But it doesn't mean he can't be viewed that way again.
In 2011, Anthony Spencer was in a contract year and tied his career high with six sacks. He also had 31 quarterback pressures and four forced fumbles. His overall game made him a valuable player in the Cowboys' 3-4.
The Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Spencer for the 2012 season.
In another contract year, Spencer had his best season, putting up a career-high 11 sacks and earning his first Pro Bowl bid.
The Cowboys put the franchise tag on him again for 2013, guaranteeing him nearly $20 million over the two seasons in which he was tagged.
Last season, he played in only one game because of a knee injury that required microfracture surgery and might keep him out of the beginning of this season. Once again he is in a contract year, having signed a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $3.5 million.
Jason Hatcher was in a contract year last year and responded with his best season. He had 11 sacks -- after putting up just 16 in his previous seven -- and was named to the Pro Bowl. His age -- he turned 32 on Sunday -- kept the Cowboys from making a play at re-signing him, but the Washington Redskins signed him to a four-year, $27.5 million deal as a free agent.
Way back in 2007, Ken Hamlin joined the Cowboys on a one-year deal. He put up a career-high five picks and was named to the Pro Bowl. Prior to the 2008 season, he signed a six-year, $39 million deal with the Cowboys that included $15 million guaranteed. He was cut after the 2009 season.
Some contract years have not been as productive. Cornerback Mike Jenkins saw the Cowboys add Brandon Carr in free agency with a $50 million deal and draft Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. Jenkins was coming off shoulder surgery, did his rehab elsewhere and started only two of 13 games in 2012. He signed with the Oakland Raiders.
Gerald Sensabaugh played on three straight one-year deals with the Cowboys from 2009-11 before cashing in at the end of the 2011 season with a five-year, $22.5 million deal that included $8 million guaranteed. He was cut after the 2012 season.
Which brings us back to Carter, the club's second-round pick in 2011.
"That's certainly a cliché thing in all of sports, that people talk about, 'He's in a contract year and he's going to take a different approach than he had up till this point,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "I don't know if I buy that with guys that I have been around. I think Bruce Carter wants to be a really good football player. I think that's independent of anything that is going on in the business side. I think getting comfortable in this scheme for the second year -- I think Sean Lee's absence will help him. It will force him to step up a little bit more. It will force Justin Durant to step up a little bit more. Sometimes you can have a player as strong as Sean Lee is -- such a great leader like Sean is -- sometimes you defer to that guy. I think it's really important for those guys to understand he's not here right now. They have to step up. They've done a better job of that throughout the OTAs and minicamp."
Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said Carter has "ramped up," the meetings with the position coach in the offseason.
"I think he's taking steps in the right direction," Eberflus said. "And he's putting the work in. He's meeting with me as much as he can. Studying the tape, giving him clear and concise goals daily for practice and he's doing a good job of attaining those goals each and every day so when he does that he takes steps in the right direction to improve his fundamentals and his game."
He was coming off a torn Achilles and played in parts of only three games in 2012.
This year, the safety might be the Dallas Cowboys' most established defender.
That leaves Church, who led the Cowboys with 147 tackles from his safety spot. He also had five tackles for loss, an interception, six pass deflections, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown.
“You never want to get too complacent or take things for granted,” Church said. “I feel like I have a role on this team now, especially at the safety crew because I’m one of the oldest guys out there in the secondary, me and Orlando and Brandon Carr. It’s a different role coming in being one of the old guys.”
Church came to the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He worked his way up from special-teamer to sub-package player to a starter.
This year he figures to add another role: leader.
With Sean Lee out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Cowboys are in need of a defensive leader. Church deferred to Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher last year, but now the younger players (as well as his peers) will look to him.
The coaches have asked him to be more vocal.
“I pretty much know the defense front and back, so the more I can communicate to the other guys and get people lined up, the better. I definitely feel like I can do it. I could’ve done it last year, but Sean was the designated leader and the vocal captain, so you roll with him. He was the guy. He proved himself. I was coming off an injury and had to re-prove myself.”
Church is a player coach Jason Garrett often cites as an example to younger players trying to figure it out.
“He loves to play,” Garrett said. “People respond to him. And he does a lot of positive things. He’s around the ball a lot. He makes a lot of plays. So he has that way about him where people kind of gravitate toward him because of his personality and because of his play. Just needs to play more and keep doing that. In regards to the absence of Sean, he absolutely needs to step up as a leader. Your best players need to do that. When you play a position like safety, you’re a big communicator back there with everybody else in the secondary. So being strong with his [voice] and being strong with his mannerisms and getting everybody squared away, I think that’s a big part of what his job is.”
In it we discuss:
- The potential of Tyrone Crawford
- The potential of the defense overall
- The potential of Jason Garrett
- The potential of Sean Lee
Away we go:
@toddarcher: Everybody wants to heap a pile of expectations on Crawford. Jason Hatcher did it. Tony Romo did it. Jerry Jones did it. The coaches have done it. I'm just not ready to say he will have seven or more sacks in 2014. I think if he had five, that would be a good year. Remember, he is coming off a torn Achilles that cost him the 2013 season and he did not have a sack as a rookie in 2012. He was good, solid, dependable, but he never got the quarterback. He had a good spring, but he also expressed some worry that he was still having pain in his leg even if it is considered normal. A five-sack season would be a good way for Crawford to rebound. If he has seven, the Cowboys will be ecstatic. I'm not saying he doesn't have the potential for that kind of season. I just want to see some more evidence before jumping on an already crowded bandwagon.
@toddarcher: Thankfully the fine folks at bloggingtheboys.com have already looked this up. Generally, they do better. Only one team in the past 19 seasons allowed more yards after giving up the most yards in the NFL. Unfortunately that team was the 2008 Detroit Lions coached by Rod Marinelli, who takes over as Cowboys' defensive coordinator. According to BTB, the average improvement is 827 yards from the previous years. Sixteen of those 19 had more wins the following season, which bodes well for the Cowboys. I think the defense will be better in 2014 because it can't be worse. Well, I know it can be worse, but I think Marinelli will make a positive impact. I think you will see the Cowboys go from No. 32 in yards to the Nos. 20-25 range. Call me crazy.
@toddarcher: I'm going to take the new head coaches out of the mix, so no Bill O'Brien, Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden or Mike Pettine. He clearly isn't among the best in the league. I don't think he's the worst either. I've got Jason Garrett as better than Doug Marrone, Gus Bradley, Joe Philbin and Dennis Allen. I think he's better than Jim Caldwell. I think he's better than Marc Trestman. To me, guys like Jeff Fisher and Lovie Smith are overrated, but that is just my opinion. I'd put him in with guys like Ron Rivera, Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt, and, yes, I realize those guys have made the playoffs or a Super Bowl (Whisenhunt). Garrett is in that 18-23 range, to me. Middle of the road. Much like the Cowboys.
@toddarcher: Maybe I'm just being stubborn on this one, but no. Contractually they can't really walk away yet even if they wanted to ... and they don't want to. I realize Lee has had his share of injuries, but he is an impactful player. He has shown too much even with missing so many games. I'm going to take my chances that he will be healthy eventually. I don't doubt he will come back from the torn anterior cruciate ligament. While still a major rehab, it is not as daunting or as uncommon as it was in the past. Lee will do everything he can do be ready. Sometimes this stuff comes down to luck. Maybe all of Lee's bad luck is out of his system and he'll be able to play a full season in 2015 and beyond. I wouldn't want to see him do it elsewhere for another team..
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.
Best-case: The reunion works
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.
As the Cowboys look to end the drought in 2014, Romo will remain the central part to their success, but the core of the team has changed.
While Romo and Jason Witten remain, the core of the team has become players like Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church and Sean Lee. The Cowboys have transitioned from an older team to a younger team.
Starting next year, the Cowboys will be in much better salary-cap space. The days of the Cowboys setting the market on free agents might be over. They signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50 million deal in 2011 and have not received the payoff. They parted ways with DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin this offseason. They did not attempt to re-sign Jason Hatcher. For a team that did not hesitate to pay age often, the Cowboys have turned almost frugal.
They have drafted better and smarter. Three of their past four first-round picks have been offensive linemen. Their drafting will never be perfect but it has been better. They have found more role players after a disastrous 2009 draft. They are trying to build the roster from the inside out as opposed to outside in.
For the Cowboys to make the jump from 8-8 to a consistent playoff team, they honestly need to continue down the same path. Patience has never been one of owner Jerry Jones’ strong suits, but the team has shown a willingness to change its ways.
If they continue to build smartly and avoid the costly mistakes that come about in free agency, the Cowboys could find themselves beginning to open up another window of opportunity as Romo and Witten wind down their careers.
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.
Best case: They lock it down
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.
The defensive coordinator liked that he has more players along the defensive line. He likes the linebackers’ “movement skills.” He likes how cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can play man-to-man. He likes the growth J.J. Wilcox made at safety opposite Barry Church.
“I think there’s something to prove a little bit,” Marinelli said. “Not something to prove from last year, but there are some guys coming here off the street with something to prove. There are some guys in contract years with something to prove. There are some guys coming out saying, ‘I want to be a better player,’ who have something prove.
“You get that many guys wanting to prove something, then you can become better. Right now what I like is how hard they’re going after their craft.”
Last season was a mess for the Cowboys' defense. It has been referenced so many times this offseason that “32nd-ranked defense” has been tattooed on everybody. The Cowboys gave up 6,279 yards in 2013 a year after giving up a franchise-record 5,687 yards. Five quarterbacks had four-touchdown games against the Cowboys. Two times in a three-week span, they allowed more than 620 yards. The New Orleans Saints had 40 first downs.
“It definitely bothers us,” Church said. “I’m speaking for myself, but it definitely bothers me. But there’s nothing we can really say or prove different. We were 32nd in the league and we weren’t that good on the defensive side of the ball. This year, the only way we can counter that is by playing good and becoming one of the better teams in the league at taking the ball away and against the run and the pass.”
It’s not just the players. The tag falls on the coaches, too.
“Nobody wants to look at last year and take ownership of that, but we have to,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And we’ve got to get better from there, and we cannot let that happen again.”
Oh, and now the Cowboys have to show they can be better in 2014 without the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, DeMarcus Ware, who was cut, last year’s leader in sacks, Jason Hatcher, who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, and their best playmaker, Sean Lee, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in organized team activities.
But the sense is that Marinelli likes it this way. He had ubertalented defenses with the Chicago Bears with guys like Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. He won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with guys like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.
He doesn’t have an Urlacher, Sapp, Brooks, Briggs, Rice or Lynch with this group.
He has Henry Melton, whom he coached to the Pro Bowl with the Bears, trying to prove he can come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He has Bruce Carter trying to prove he is a big-time player in a contract year. He has Claiborne, a former sixth overall pick in the draft, trying to prove he is not a bust. He has Carr trying to prove he is worth the five-year, $50 million contract he received in 2012. He has George Selvie trying to prove he was not a one-year wonder after putting up seven sacks last season. He has Tyrone Crawford trying to prove he can come back from a torn Achilles.
He has low-cost free agents such as Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye trying to prove they can be prime-time players. He has Justin Durant trying to prove he can be a middle linebacker and Kyle Wilber trying to prove he can be a strongside linebacker. He has Rolando McClain trying to prove that a player who has retired twice in the past year has the desire to keep playing. He has DeMarcus Lawrence trying to prove that a second-rounder can make an impact as a rookie. He has Wilcox trying to prove he can play strong safety.
He has guys like Church and Scandrick trying to prove that they can put up solid seasons in back-to-back years.
So much to prove. So much to forget.
“The first thing you do is you take it as coaches and players and you take accountability for it,” Marinelli said. “And no excuses. Now we look forward. Now it’s about the expectations of this group and with expectations you have to execute. It’s that simple. That simple, yet that hard.”
In it, we discuss:
- The future of Tony Romo
- Mr. Indispensable
- Tyrone Crawford as a defensive end
- Morris Claiborne’s offseason.
- Once more on Kyle Orton, with feeling.
If you want to see Part 1 of the mailbag, click here. And this will be our last Twitter mailbag for a few weeks thanks to some vacation.
Away we go:
@toddarcher: Since Romo is such a golf guy, let's use a golf analogy: he's on the back nine. I don't know how anybody could think otherwise. He is 34. He is coming off two back surgeries. He is in his eighth year as a full-time starter. Just because he is on the back nine doesn't mean he can't play at a high level. I know the odds are stacked and thirty-something quarterbacks haven't won a lot of Super Bowls here lately, but I'd take my chances he's on Holes 12 and 13, if you will. He still has football in him, provided he can stay upright. I do think Romo is smart enough to adapt his game as he gets older. If you allow me to carry on with other sports analogies, here's another one: fastball pitchers can develop into multipitch guys over the years. Romo has done a lot on his own with some improvisation and ability to buy time. I don't think you'll see him run around as much as he did when he was younger. I think you'll see him pick and choose his spots. I believe he did some of that last year, which is one of the reasons his sack total was so high. He was willing to take the sack -- not necessarily the big hit mind you -- and move on to the next play rather than take a risk of a hit or a poor throw.
Is Tony Romo's best years in front of him or behind him? #cowboysmail— Nolan (@Nolan_Fowler22) June 20, 2014
@toddarcher: Conventional wisdom says DeMarco Murray because when he gets 20 carries in a game, the Cowboys win. I hate that stat. If it really means what it says it means, then Murray should get the ball on the first 20 plays of every game. We all know it doesn't work that way. But I'm also of the opinion that the running back position has been devalued. I think the Cowboys could get by without Murray. Would they be as good? No, but they would not be lost. To me, if they lost Jason Witten, then they would be in trouble. Witten has been a mainstay. He does everything. The passing game has missed receivers over the years, but Romo has been able to throw for more than 300 yards in game whether he has Kevin Ogletree, Laurent Robinson or Dwayne Harris playing big roles. Without Witten, I don't know that that would continue. And in the running game, Witten can set the edge. He's not a blow-them-up blocker, but he can displace defensive ends and linebackers to allow backs to pick holes. On defense, I really didn't have a candidate, but if I did, I'd probably go with Barry Church. I don't know what they would do at safety without him. The defense would take a different look, for sure. DeMarcus Ware type. He can be a Greg Ellis type. If he does not play well, then the Cowboys' defensive line will struggle. They need him to have a good year. I think the expectations have been raised on the kid from comments by guys like Jason Hatcher and Tony Romo. People need to remember he didn't have a sack in 2012 and he missed last year. There will be some growing pains, but the potential is definitely there. Orlando Scandrick will be the starter Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers. To win that job from Scandrick he will have to knock out the champ, if you know what I mean. NFL's collective bargaining agreement, look at Article 4, Section 9. It's about forfeiture. If I had to bet when Kyle Orton shows up at training camp it would be either July 27 or July 28. Once he misses six practices, the Cowboys can come after the prorated amount of signing bonus in 2014. So in addition to the fines he induced in the offseason -- $69,455 for missing the minicamp, $10,930 for missing the physical -- and the $75,000 de-escalator in his contract for missing too many workouts, Orton would be fined $30,000 for missing camp. So let's say he misses a week, costing him $150,000. You're looking at about $300,000 in fines, de-escalators, which brings his base salary to just under $3 million. I think for 17 regular-season weeks and a month of preseason, Orton would be OK to make that kind of money and then walk away from the game. It will be interesting to see how this goes when the Cowboys get to camp. They have remained patient, to say the least, while Orton has been silent.
Take Romo, Dez, and Tyron out of the equation, who is Mr. Indispensible for the boys this yr?? #cowboysmail— Michael Scattone (@scattydukes) June 20, 2014
The Cowboys swapped out defensive coordinators, bringing in Rod Marinelli for Monte Kiffin. They have swapped out players, cutting DeMarcus Ware and losing Jason Hatcher. They lost their best defender, Sean Lee, to a knee injury in May. Their highest-profile free-agent signing, Henry Melton, has not taken a team snap as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The biggest re-signing, Anthony Spencer, might not be able to take a snap in training camp as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery.
Despite the historic defensive deficiencies in 2013, the Cowboys were a Week 17 win away from making the playoffs.
With just a slight improvement on defense, the Cowboys believe they can contend for the postseason.
"I agree," executive vice president Stephen Jones said, "and I think we're better on offense than we were last year."
The Cowboys averaged 27.4 points per game last year, which was fifth-most in the league, but they averaged only 341.1 yards per game, which was 16th. They struggled on third down, converting just 35 percent, and they could not finish games by running the ball or chose not to attempt to run the ball.
Jones believes the offense has a chance to be great in 2014.
"Obviously we believe Tony Romo is an elite quarterback and you put the supporting cast with him, that's why picked Zack Martin," Jones said. "I think we're better in the offensive line and you'd hope so if you spent the 16th pick in the draft on one of the better offensive lineman in the draft. You'd like to hope you're better. And we were pretty good last year and I think we'll move that up to where you say, ‘Hey, we've got a chance to have an elite offense.'"
The pieces are there. Romo threw 31 touchdown passes and was intercepted just 10 times in 15 games. Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and Tyron Smith went to the Pro Bowl. With Martin, the Cowboys have three first-round picks on the line with Smith and Travis Frederick. Wide receiver Terrance Williams proved he could be a playmaker last year and will take over for Miles Austin.
The Cowboys will break in their third playcaller in as many years in Scott Linehan after Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan, but Jones likes the freshness Linehan will bring to the offense. The Cowboys are not overhauling the system, but adding Linehan's wrinkles.
"I think he brings a different look," Jones said. "After a while when it's been Jason's offense and Bill ran Jason's offense and called the plays in Jason's offense but at the end of the day we'd been doing that for a while. I think now to add wrinkles and add things to it, I don't think it's going to be, when people get ready to play us, that they know exactly what to expect now."
The Dallas Cowboys defense will be without DeMarcus Ware (offseason release), Jason Hatcher (free-agent defection) and Sean Lee (torn anterior cruciate ligament), but the owner and general manager sees a defense that will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013 when it finished last in the league in yards allowed.
"Because we were so bad last year, there's no place but up," Jones said.
So there is that. The Cowboys made modest moves in free agency with the signings of Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Amobi Okoye. They re-signed Anthony Spencer, who is not likely to be ready to start training camp as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery. They drafted DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round.
Mostly they are hoping for serious improvement from within.
The Cowboys finished 19th overall in defense in 2012. Injuries ravaged the defense by the end of the season, but that did not save Rob Ryan's job.
Last year the Cowboys made a scheme change, switching from the 3-4 under Ryan to the 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin. They did not make serious personnel additions (Will Allen, Justin Durant) and were hoping not only for improvement from within but scheme flexibility from players drafted to play in Bill Parcells' or Wade Phillips' 3-4.
It seemed as if the Cowboys thought 2013 would be better because it could not be worse than it was at the end of 2012, but Jones disagreed with the assessment.
"I can say it this year, we are better right now," Jones said. "And I think better on the field. We're certainly better on paper than we were at the end of the season last year. Not on paper at the beginning of the season last year, but on paper right now relative to how we ended up last year."
McClain will wear No. 97 this season, but the name on the back still read Hatcher. It was an old jersey, but a sign of the footsteps McClain is following.
Jason Hatcher had 11 sacks last season and joined the Washington Redskins as a free agent in March.
“I don’t want to say I’m more nose (tackle) than three (technique) but they have me at both watching what he did last year,” McClain said. “He was just dominating. Being able to come in and try to fill his shoes is going to be a big thing. But I like challenges and hopefully I’ll be able to make a big impact like he did last year.
The Cowboys enter the final week of their offseason program with their mandatory minicamp this week, and McClain has earned notice.
“He’s one of those guys who doesn’t say anything to anybody,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s just quiet and goes to work every day, but he’s absolutely one of the guys who is showing up the most in these (OTA) practices. He has great intensity in all that he does. He flashes some ability. We really like how he goes about his business.”
The Cowboys signed McClain to a three-year deal with just a $300,000 signing bonus after the Houston Texans chose not to tender him an offer as a restricted free agent. Last year the Cowboys looked at past pedigree in signing defensive linemen during the season, adding former high picks like Everette Brown, Marvin Austin, Corvey Irvin and Martez Wilson with varying degrees of success.
McClain was a third-round pick in 2011 by the Carolina Panthers. He lasted just one full season and had one sack. He spent 2012 with the New England Patriots and Houston Texans, and last year had 10 tackles in 16 games as a reserve for the Texans.
“Just getting back into the 4-3 system and being able to come off the ball, flying around, making plays, it’s been good,” McClain said.
With Henry Melton being held out of team drills as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, McClain has been working mostly at the three-technique. He will likely see more time during the season as the nose tackle.
That versatility was attractive to the Cowboys, too.
“Being that 4-3 nose, you’re not just sitting on the line, holding up two guards,” McClain said. “They want him up the field, have him doing some movement going from A-gap to A-gap to the B-gap. In the 3-4 we’re just keeping two linemen off the linebackers making sure they’re making the plays. It’s a big difference.”
When the Cowboys signed George Selvie last summer, not much was known or expected from the defensive end. He ended up starting every game and picking up seven sacks. McClain and Selvie were teammates at South Florida.
“Being able to actually watch what he did last year really made a big part of (signing with the Cowboys),” McClain said. “Seeing that he’s still got it, making so many plays last year, that kind of motivated myself to come in and also make a lot of plays. Just like old time.”
In it we discuss:
- The state of the Cowboys defense.
- Adding a new name to the veteran linebacker mix.
- The future of B.W. Webb.
- Tony Romo's two back surgeries.
- Bruce Carter's performance in organized team activities.
Away we go:
DeMarcus Ware on the current roster. They believe Henry Melton can be a younger (and better fit) version of Hatcher, but he's coming back from knee surgery. They will not have Sean Lee. It's hard to say the defense will be better. There are questions at every level and with almost every player. The safest picks are Barry Church and Orlando Scandrick. You know what you will get from those guys. Do you know what you'll get from anybody else? I'm not so sure. I'm playing the odds and say they will be better, but I don't see them cracking the top half of the league. If they can get in the low 20s, then they'll have a chance to make the playoffs. James Harrison doesn't play a position of need here in this scheme. If they were in a 3-4, I'd say yes. He was marginal last year in Cincinnati in a 4-3. Too many times we get caught up in names when it comes to the Cowboys. That's why everybody mentioned Brian Urlacher. Harrison was a great player, on par with Ware. He made a ton of disruptive plays. But he's not that guy anymore. And he doesn't fit a need. The strong-side linebacker in this scheme is going to play 40 percent of the snaps. It will be either Kyle Wilber or DeVonte Holloman, and Wilber will get my vote. Harrison had his time. He's not a guy the Cowboys need to go after. Sterling Moore has been better. Tyler Patmon, who was at the rookie minicamp on a tryout basis and earned a job, has been better. We haven't seen seventh rounder Terrance Mitchell since the rookie camp because of league rules, but I'd put him ahead of Webb right now. You're just not seeing progress either outside or in the slot. I hate to give up on a guy in his second year, but sometimes it's just obvious. He has the athletic ability but it's just not translating. He was getting virtual one-on-one coaching last year when he was forced to play and he struggled. Right now he would be my fifth or sixth corner at best. He has to have a really good training camp and preseason to make the club. Jason Witten. I haven't noticed him on backs as much and he struggled there last year. But he's been in position a few times and not made a play. He's made some plays. It's been OK. He needs to be better than OK. That doesn't mean he has to turn into Derrick Brooks, but he has to take a step forward. Sometimes he will do something and you'll say, Wow. Other times you're left wondering what he was watching.