Dallas Cowboys: Justin Durant
"Wherever they need me is fine," he said. "They're all a little different. Strongside is the unglamorous spot because you're playing the run and battling those tackles and tight ends. Middle linebacker is nice because you're making the calls and you feel like it's your defense. And weakside is fun because you just chase the ball and make plays."
The Cowboys would prefer for Rolando McClain to earn the job at middle linebacker so Durant could play weakside linebacker, which is considered his best position.
He played in just 10 games last season, starting six, after signing a two-year, $1.96 million deal with the Cowboys. He's poised to have a much bigger role this season.
"Wherever they need me is fine," he said. "I just want to be on the field helping us win games."
He had a similar issue at the end of practice on Tuesday, according to Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, and it continued this morning.
Garrett said he hoped McClain could participate in the afternoon walk-through practice.
McClain, acquired in a trade just before the start of training camp with the Baltimore Ravens, has impressed the Cowboys with his talent. He's a big, physical linebacker who would certainly help one of the worst defenses in the NFL.
But he's also retired from the Oakland Raiders and Ravens in the past year and didn't play last season. Still, he remains an intriguing player and the Cowboys would love for him to win the starting job, which would allow them to play Justin Durant at weakside linebacker, while limiting Bruce Carter to nickel situations.
There have been questions about McClain's commitment to the game since he arrived. He has done little to answer them.
"We're going to take his situation just like everybody's situation -- day by day - and we'll give him a chance to go through the meetings and walk-through this afternoon and come out and practice tomorrow. We'll continue our evaluation of him and do what's best for our football team in regards to him and everybody else."
1) Before you get yourself all worked up over the possibility of Josh Brent rejoining the Cowboys, understand their desperation level.
This defense gave up 415.3 yards and 27 points a game last season, and there’s no guarantee it will be better. And that’s with a quality defensive staff headed by Rod Marinelli.
Study the players on the Cowboys’ defensive line, and making the decision to add Brent to the mix isn’t that difficult.
Plus, there’s no guarantee he makes the team. He hasn’t played in more than a year and he wasn’t working out much, if at all, while he was in jail.
Actually, the most interesting aspect of Brent’s potential return is whether Roger Goodell suspends him or counts the year he sat out in retirement as a suspension year.
With all of the criticism Goodell received for the two-game suspension of Baltimore running back Ray Rice, it’s hard to tell whether that will make him issue a tougher penalty than he ordinarily would in the Brent case.
They say the minor injuries are the result of McClain not participating in the offseason workout program combined with the hard work he has put in since he arrived.
The combination has put his body under some stress. Still, the club is beyond pleased with his work right now.
Don’t be shocked if the starting linebackers against San Francisco are Kyle Wilber, McClain and Justin Durant.
Bruce Carter has work to do.
3) The screen pass looks like it’s going to be a bigger part of the Cowboys’ offense than it has been, which would make sense.
Play-caller Scott Linehan used them frequently with running back Reggie Bush last season, All of the lineman except Ron Leary would be considered quality blockers in space, and DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar have good hands.
Screen plays don’t work without the coaching staff committed to the practice time it takes to get good at executing them.
Key number: 37
The Cowboys problem last season wasn’t moving the ball. They had just 37 three-and-outs in 183 possessions.
Only six teams had a higher percentage and five made the playoffs. Now, the Cowboys need to score touchdowns instead of kick field goals.
Do so, and they might be able to protect their defense and win some games.
Player to Watch: Devin Street
The fifth-round pick from Pittsburgh is a smooth receiver who has the size the Cowboys these days at 6-3 and 200 pounds, but his task right now is to get stronger.
He’ll have to get bigger, so he can be physical enough to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage and to create separation with all of the hand-fighting that goes on between receivers and defensive backs.
He scored a couple of touchdowns in the Cowboys Blue & White scrimmage, but if he wants playing time this season he’ll have to do it on special teams unless there’s an injury.
The Cowboys like their group at receiver, so they don’t need to rush Street into the lineup. They can develop him slowly and let receivers coach Derek Dooley help him improve.
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)
- Tyron Smith
- Mackenzy Bernadeau
- Travis Frederick
- Zack Martin
- Doug Free
- Ronald Leary
- Jermey Parnell
- Darrion Weems
- Brian Clarke
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)
- George Selvie
- Henry Melton
- Terrell McClain
- DeMarcus Lawrence
- Jeremy Mincey
- Tyrone Crawford
- Ben Gardner
- Davon Coleman
- Ken Bishop
- Martez Wilson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
- How Henry Melton kicks in the option of his contract.
- How many tight ends the Cowboys keep.
- Who starts at linebacker?
- The hypothetical to end all hypotheticals.
If you want to read Part 1, click here.
Away we go:
@toddarcher: There is not a magic number necessarily, but if Melton matches his career high of seven sacks, the Cowboys will pick up the final three years, which guarantees him $9 million in 2015. Melton will be the key to this defense. He is the lone known true playmaker on the defensive line. I don't think you can count on another seven-sack season from George Selvie. The others all have something to prove. Melton has the most talent, but he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. For some players it takes a little more time to come back from that injury, but from all accounts Melton's rehab has gone well and he will be on the field to open training camp. The tough call will be whether the Cowboys pick up the option if he has a four- or five-sack season. Would it be worth it to kick in the final three years of the deal if he's just OK? That could be a tough call.
@toddarcher How many tight ends can you possibly keep esp if you keep 5 wide outs. Seems like there needs to be at least 1 odd man out.— Sean McCauley (@seanmac331) July 2, 2014
@toddarcher: They kept four tight ends last season for a spell when they had five receivers. I think the spot comes down to a fourth tight end or a fullback. I know there are a lot of people who love the fullback. Tyler Clutts did a nice job late last season, but I'm not one of those who believe the fullback is necessary. Another factor in how many players are kept at certain positions this year will be quarterback. If Kyle Orton comes back and the Cowboys keep him, then they will keep three quarterbacks for the first time in a couple of years. That chews into a roster spot somewhere else as well. But back to the tight ends: I think they need to get a blocking-type in their top-three, so that would put James Hanna on the bubble. I like Hanna, but I want to see the coaches use his abilities. In his two seasonss, they have yet to get him in space to use that speed.
@toddarcher: To me, it's Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Kyle Wilber. I'm not even sure I can put Rolando McClain on the active roster if I had to do a 53-man breakdown today. Too many questions there. Carter is the clear front-runner at the Will. He did a better job later in the offseason. Durant has the most experience at the Mike, and that is not even that much. But he can be serviceable. Wilber played well last season and carried that over to the spring. He might be their best find, because moving him from defensive end to the Sam last season was really a move of desperation and it worked. I suppose DeVonte Holloman could push his way into the mix at Mike or Sam, but as of today, I'm going with the aforementioned three.
@toddarcher: Unlike Jason Garrett, I will answer a hypothetical even if it does me no good. Under this scenario, I see the Cowboys as a 6-10 team. I'm going on the premise that they get off to a decent start with Tony Romo. And if they want to make the playoffs, they have to get off to a decent start. So let's call a decent start as 3-3. I can see them winning another three -- just don't ask me which games -- because the schedule is tough down the stretch. The last part of the question -- Garrett remaining as coach -- is tough to say. Remember, he got the interim job with Romo hurt and went 5-3. Now he could end his job with Romo hurt. If the Cowboys play hard for him, which they have done, and they are in the games, which they have done, then I could see a chance of him returning in 2015. That doesn't mean it would happen. I'm on record saying Garrett has to make the playoffs to be back in 2015. Man, I hate hypothetical questions. Now I know why coaches don't answer them. But don't worry, we'll still ask them.
After one minicamp practice, I asked linebackers coach Matt Eberflus if the starting middle linebacker was currently on the roster.
“We’re going to coach the guys on the grass and find out what goes on from there,” Eberflus said.
McClain wasn’t at minicamp and wasn’t even in the picture, as he had filed retirement papers with the NFL. It wasn’t until he asked the league to be reinstated last week that McClain became an option for the Cowboys.
When the Cowboys open camp, Justin Durant will likely be the first-team middle linebacker. He took the first-team snaps in the minicamp and during most of the organized team activities after Sean Lee suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
But let’s go back to the tape from minicamp again.
Durant was asked if the Mike linebacker spot was his strongest.
“My strongest?” he said. “Probably not, just because I’m not as familiar with middle as outside.”
Eberflus was asked the same question.
“The great thing about Justin is he can play all positions,” Eberflus said. “I don’t know if that’s his strongest position, but I don’t know that it’s not his strongest position.”
Durant had his most productive game of the season against New Orleans after taking over for Lee, who suffered a hamstring injury, finishing with seven tackles before also hurting his hamstring. He missed the next three games before starting the Green Bay contest. He made two tackles before getting hurt again, ending his season.
He said he played middle linebacker for a year and a half with the Jacksonville Jaguars as well as in college.
“I’ve just got to revert to my old ways,” he said.
He cross-trained at the position last year, but now the job is full-time. The angles are different. What he sees is different.
“In the middle, you’ve got to see both sides of the field,” he said. “If you’re outside, you’re just focused on your side.”
Eberflus and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli like what Durant did last year. He missed six games with hamstring and groin injuries but finished with 30 tackles, two tackles for loss, two pressures, a pass break-up and a forced fumble.
“I think that’s a real good fit for him,” Eberflus said. “He’s an intelligent young man. He plays the game in a smart way and he’s able to communicate and make the calls. The more he’s in there, the better off he feels and he’s making progress.”
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.
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.
- The Cowboys have roughly $8.5 million in salary-cap space. That's enough money to fit in a new contract for a free-agent linebacker, if the team deems one necessary to fill Sean Lee's spot at middle linebacker. Currently Justin Durant is No. 1 on the depth chart at middle linebacker. The Cowboys are open to leaving Durant there, but want to see more work once training camp starts and most likely one or two preseason games before looking at the free-agent market.
- When it comes to the NFC East, Washington has just $2.5 million left in cap space. The Philadelphia Eagles have the most within the division at $19.3 million with the New York Giants coming in third at $6.9 million.
- Cornerback Brandon Carr has the highest salary-cap number on the team at $12.2 million. Tony Romo ($11.7 million), Jason Witten ($8.4 million), Doug Free ($6.5 million)and Morris Claiborne ($4.43 million) are in the top 5. Backup quarterback Kyle Orton, if he plays in 2014, will have the sixth highest cap number on the team at $4.43 million. With Orton and Romo taking up so much cap space, the Cowboys average $17.7 million in space devoted to the quarterback position, far higher than the league average of $12.3 million. Pittsburgh has $21.7 million in cap space to the quarterback position, which leads the NFL.
- The Cowboys lead the NFL in salary-cap space devoted to cornerbacks at $22.7 million. The NFL average for that position is $13.06 million with Carr leading the NFL with his cap number. Orlando Scandrick has a cap number of just $3.6 million and he's a projected starter over Claiborne.
- Last year, the Cowboys had $48.6 million in cap space taken up by defensive players. So far that number has decreased to $42.2 million for the 2014 season. On offense, the Cowboys numbers have gone up. Last year, the Cowboys cap number for the offense was $49.4 million and this season it's $55.2 million.
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."
"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."
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.”
• 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.