Dallas Cowboys: Martez Wilson

The Cowboys need a pass rusher. Martez Wilson, converting from linebacker to defensive end, thinks he can help.

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.”
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
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IRVING, Texas -- Examining the Dallas Cowboys' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (2)

The Kyle Orton watch is over now that the Cowboys released the veteran backup. The timing of it is a surprise, and Jason Garrett spoke optimistically all offseason about Orton’s return. Now the Cowboys turn their attention to Weeden as Romo’s backup. Weeden had a productive spring, running the first-team offense as Romo recovered from back surgery. The Cowboys haven’t kept a third quarterback since 2011, and Caleb Hanie and Dustin Vaughan will have work to do to crack the 53-man roster

RUNNING BACKS (4)


The last two spots could be up in the air. Randle, a fifth-round choice, will be pushed by free-agent pickup Ryan Williams in the preseason. Williams, a former second-round pick, was not able to stay healthy in Arizona. The Cowboys have given him a chance to win a backup job. Clutts did a nice job as a late-season pickup in 2013. He is more versatile than undrafted rookie J.C. Copeland, but I don’t think having a fullback on the 53-man roster is set in stone.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5)


I debated whether to go with a sixth, but later on you will see why I stuck with five. It is possible the Cowboys will look for a veteran in the final cuts if they feel limited by their depth because of injury, but I think they like the overall group. They will work their No. 3 receiver role on a rotation basis, but Beasley could emerge as a bigger threat on third down. There will be a lot of eyes on Williams, who takes over the No. 2 role on a full-time basis. Bryant is set for another Pro Bowl-type season.

TIGHT ENDS (3)


Witten remains near the top of the game at his position. His total catches were down last year, but his touchdowns were up. Escobar’s role figures to expand, especially as a No. 3-type receiver. Hanna has the inside track on the third spot, but I have a feeling the Cowboys will be looking for more of a traditional blocker, especially if they want to get away from the fullback spot to open up a role elsewhere.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9)

The top six are set, with Bernadeau or Leary fighting it out for the left guard position and the loser becoming the top backup on the interior. Parnell is in the final year of his deal, and if Weems develops, I wonder if the Cowboys would look for a trading partner. They have invested a lot in Parnell in time and money for him to be a backup, so it would be a risk, but perhaps one worth taking. Weems had a decent offseason. Clarke gets the nod as the No. 9 guy right now, but veteran Uche Nwaneri could work his way into the mix.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

I think the Cowboys will go heavy here, especially considering what happened last year and the numbers they have thrown at the position this year. Four of them are rookies -- Lawrence, Gardner, Bishop and Coleman. I believe Anthony Spencer and possibly Amobi Okoye will start the year on the physically unable to perform list, so they don’t make this 53-man roster with the idea that they join the team after the sixth game of the season. Wilson garnered the last spot over a 2013 starter, Nick Hayden, but there will be a few players in the mix for the final few spots, including Ben Bass.

LINEBACKER (7)

Carrying seven linebackers might be a little heavy, but I have special teams in mind when it comes to Will Smith. He benefits from having only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys spent the offseason telling us games are won and lost up front, so carrying an extra offensive or defensive linemen could get in this mix as well. McClain gets a spot only because of his experience. Backups of Holloman, Hitchens and Smith would be tough considering their youth, and I can see the Cowboys looking for veteran backup help around the final cut dates.

CORNERBACK (5)


Carr and Claiborne have to play exceptionally well for this defense to have a chance, and they might have to do it without much help from a consistent pass rush. Scandrick is coming off his best season, and Claiborne will have to beat him out to reclaim the starting spot. Moore can play inside and out. Mitchell showed in his limited offseason work that he can make plays. Last year’s fourth-round pick, B.W. Webb, will have to fight for a spot. Based on his offseason work, he did not make the cut for this roster.

SAFETY (5)

Church is the only player without questions. The Cowboys are projecting the other four with their biggest bet on Wilcox. He enters camp as the starter, but he could be pushed by Heath and Hamilton. Dixon will be more of a special-teams threat if he is to make the roster. Hamilton showed some playmaking in the offseason. No Matt Johnson? Not right now, especially after he couldn’t practice -- again -- for most of the offseason.

SPECIALISTS (3)


Perhaps Cody Mandell can push Jones, but Jones is the more consistent punter and has a good rapport as a holder for Bailey. Ladouceur remains one of the best long-snappers in the game. This group won’t change during the summer unless there is an injury.

OTA observations: Pump up the volume

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

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

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

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

“Come on, Martez,” he yelled. “Be a money player.”

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesNewcomer Henry Melton is rated as Dallas' best defensive starter by Pro Football Focus.
It was third down in a two-minute situation. Wilson was able to come up with a would-be sack and a pressure on fourth down.

The Cowboys' defense doesn’t look to have many money players. Troy Aikman alluded to it on a recent appearance on The Afternoon Show with Cowlishaw and Mosley. Despite what many people thought, DeMarcus Ware was a money player. He had 42 sacks on third down. He had 31 sacks in the fourth quarter and 53.5 in the second halves of games. He had 25.5 sacks when the Cowboys were losing by 1-7 points and 27 sacks when they were winning by the same margin.

Who are the Cowboys’ money players now?

Linebacker Sean Lee would have been a money player, but he’s out for the season with a knee injury. Safety Barry Church might be their best bet.

SportsNation

Who will be the Cowboys' money player on defense?

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    26%
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Discuss (Total votes: 13,005)

The Cowboys hope defensive tackle Henry Melton can be a money player, but he’s coming back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. They hope cornerbacks Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne can be money players. They hope defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, their second-round pick, can be a money player.

They have to "hope" for a lot.

The guys at Pro Football Focus ranked the rosters across the NFL, and the Cowboys came in at No. 18. Nine of the 12 projected key contributors listed on defense are either below average (Bruce Carter, Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox) or average (George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, Justin Durant, Carr, Scandrick and Church). The only “good” starter is Melton.

Here is what they said about the Cowboys:
18. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys' defense had its problems before star inside linebacker Sean Lee suffered a torn ACL last week in OTAs. Lee was a high-quality starter, and only his history with injuries prevented him from being a legitimate blue-chipper. Without him, the team looks even more threadbare on that side of the ball.

Henry Melton was a nice addition in free agency, but when you look at what else has departed in the same offseason, it does little to stem the bleeding. There is a lot of money invested in the secondary, but neither Morris Claiborne nor Brandon Carr has come close to justifying it yet. The offense is what keeps this roster afloat, with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant headlining talent that runs deep across the skill positions. The Cowboys look likely to be involved in plenty of shootouts this year.

By the numbers: Tony Romo is among seven projected starters on offense (58.3 percent) who are graded good or better, with only Ronald Leary at left guard ranking below average. On defense, things are a different story entirely, with only Melton grading out as above average. The loss of Lee robs the team of its fifth high-quality starter and the only one on defense.

For the full list, click here, but you have to be an Insider.Insider

If there is something to feel better about, the Cowboys are second in the NFC East, though by a wide margin. The Philadelphia Eagles checked in at No. 5. The New York Giants are No. 19 and Washington Redskins are at No. 26.
IRVING, Texas -- Here are some observations from the Dallas Cowboys’ organized team activities on Monday:

• The Nos. 1 and 2 defenses came up with wins in the two-minute drills against the offense. Linebacker Justin Durant broke up a fourth-down pass from Brandon Weeden to Jason Witten. Weeden was late with a third-down throw to Dez Bryant that could have been a big gain.

• The second-team defense had two would-be sacks to close out their two-minute drill. Martez Wilson came unblocked after the defense blitzed from the strong side.

• Linebacker Kyle Wilber showed some position flexibility by moving to left defensive end in the two-minute drills. He was at least able to battle to a draw with Doug Free.

• Cornerback Morris Claiborne took part in team drills after being limited to individual drills during the first OTA open to the media. With the Cowboys working mostly in their nickel defense, Claiborne got a lot of work on the outside, but Orlando Scandrick continued to work with the starters.

• Wide receiver Terrance Williams had two drops in the early part of practice but came up with a nice sideline catch on a throw from Weeden with safety J.J. Wilcox late with some help.

• Safety Jakar Hamilton came up with a nice pass breakup on a crossing route by Jamar Newsome on a throw from quarterback Caleb Hanie.

• Running back Lance Dunbar killed the backup linebackers in 7-on-7 drills. He ran away from Keith Smith on an underneath route. He lined up in the backfield, in the slot and even motioned wide. Dunbar has the look of a space player Scott Linehan has excelled with in the past in special circumstances.

• Jason Witten was a late arrival to practice because his son had minor surgery Monday. Witten said his son is fine and he was able to take part in all of the team work. Backup tight end Gavin Escobar did not practice because of a sore back. He said he banged his knee in practice last week but that is OK.

• Wide receiver Dwayne Harris did not take part in any offensive team drills but he did return punts during the special teams portion of practice.

• New defensive tackle Terrell McClain showed some burst up the middle to stop a run by DeMarco Murray while playing the three technique. He also played the nose tackle spot for a few snaps with Nick Hayden sitting out.

Re-setting Cowboys D-line

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
9:30
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IRVING, Texas -- With Anthony Spencer re-signing over the weekend, the Dallas Cowboys now have 12 defensive linemen on their current roster.

Is that enough?

Probably not. And as explained on Saturday, the Spencer deal should not preclude the Cowboys from going after more defensive linemen in the draft.

Let’s reset the Cowboys defensive line:

Ben Bass: Signed through 2014 -- A restricted free agent after the season, has to show he can stay healthy.

Tyrone Crawford: Signed through 2015 -- Coming off torn Achilles, but expected to be main contributor this season.

Nick Hayden: Signed through 2014 -- An unrestricted free agent after the season, he was a starter last year and had some moments.

Frank Kearse: Signed through 2015 -- A late-season addition in 2013, more of a depth player.

Terrell McClain: Signed through 2016 -- A free-agent pickup, he could take over the one technique spot this year from Hayden.

Henry Melton: Signed through 2014 -- Team holds a three-year option on his deal that would guarantee him $9 million. The key free-agent signing.

George Selvie: Signed through 2014 -- A revelation last year with seven sacks, he will be counted on more in 2014. He is an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Anthony Spencer: Signed through 2014 -- He is coming back from microfracture surgery but his rehab has gone well recently. The one-year deal allows him to make good this year to cash in next year.

Martez Wilson: Signed through 2014 -- His measurables have the team intrigued at what he could be in a full year with Rod Marinelli. He is an unrestricted free agent after the season.

Tristan Okpalaugo: Signed through 2014 – He was a futures signing after the season and team is hoping they found a diamond in rough.

Caesar Rayford: Signed through 2014 – Acquired in trade from Indianapolis last summer, he is a project but looks the part.

Jeremy Mincey: Signed through 2015 -- A free-agent pickup, he can play either end spot and move inside in passing situations.

Analysis: The only player with a contract past 2015 is McClain, which is one of the reasons why defensive line remains a need. The main reason, however, is they can still use an infusion of talent and a natural pass rusher … Melton’s deal could run through 2017 if the Cowboys pick up his option. For that to happen, however, he will have to perform close to his Pro Bowl level with the Chicago Bears in 2013 … Position flexibility helps. Bass, Crawford, Mincey and Selvie have the ability to play end and tackle depending on the situation.

Five Wonders: All in play for NFL draft

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
9:00
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IRVING, Texas -- With the NFL draft five weeks away, it seems like a perfect time to bring back Five Wonders.

On to the wonders:

Melton
• Some of you might wonder if the acquisition of Henry Melton takes the Dallas Cowboys out of the loop for Aaron Donald at No. 16 overall, considering both players would handle the three-technique role in Rod Marinelli’s scheme. Here’s why you shouldn’t wonder. You have to look at the Melton contract as a one-year deal. If he doesn’t play to the level where the Cowboys want to exercise their three-year option on him next year, then they would be back in the same situation they were in before signing Melton. The bigger question might be whether Donald makes it to No. 16 overall, but the Cowboys must be prepared to take him if he’s there. He is scheduled to visit the Cowboys before the draft. He piqued their interest at the Senior Bowl and did more of it at the NFL scouting combine. There is nothing wrong with taking a player at a position of strength (OK, if they took a tight end in the first round, then that might be overkill but more on that later). Injuries happen and you can never have enough good players.

• I wonder if this is the year the Cowboys look at a quarterback in the middle rounds, even with the signing of Brandon Weeden. The last time the Cowboys drafted a quarterback was in 2009 when they took Stephen McGee in the fourth round. The Cowboys loved his makeup but he did not develop. It should be noted that Wade Wilson is scheduled to attend the pro day of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in November but is expected to do most of the drills at the pro day. Murray is a second- or third-day selection and a player the Cowboys can have some patience with. He holds Georgia’s records in passing yards (13,166) and touchdown passes (121) and has a moxie to his game. With Tony Romo, Kyle Orton and Weeden, you can argue there won’t be enough snaps to go around, but just as was mentioned with Donald, the draft is not just about the current year. It is about future years as well. The Cowboys will go with Romo as long as they can, but Orton is in the final year of his deal, and Weeden’s contract did not include any signing bonus.

• I wonder if one of the reasons why the Cowboys say they don’t need a veteran wide receiver is in part because of tight end Gavin Escobar. The Cowboys can like Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley all they want, but there are limitations to their games. But if you add Escobar to that mix, then the Cowboys would be able to roll three players through the snaps if something happened to Dez Bryant or Terrance Williams. If it were me, I’d still look at a receiver, but the Cowboys are intrigued by the mismatches Escobar can create and are banking on new tight ends coach Mike Pope to develop him. And remember this about new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan. He had Joseph Fauria with the Detroit Lions last year. He caught just 18 passes for 207 yards, but seven went for touchdowns. Fauria is 6-7 and 255 pounds. Escobar is 6-6 and 249 pounds.

• And now on to the promised talk of a tight end. I wonder if the Cowboys need to find more of a blocking type of tight end? It’s not a sign of giving up on Escobar as a hand-in-the-ground tight end, but there are limitations and there will be limitations in the future. James Hanna filled in well enough as the No. 2 tight end most of the time to Jason Witten, but blocking is not his strong suit and the coaches were not able to design a way to use his speed. The Cowboys kept Andre Smith around for a spell last year because of his blocking, but his lack of special teams’ play hurt his chances of making the game-day roster. If the Cowboys are to look for more of a blocking tight end, then they will have to live with the fact the player might not help much on special teams.

• I wonder if the Cowboys believe Martez Wilson will be able to help them out at defensive end. He signed with the Cowboys last November and was on the field almost immediately, but he did not make much of an impact. He has the physical skills necessary to become a player at 6-4, 252 pounds. He runs well. He has some pop to him. Maybe he just needs more time with Marinelli to develop. He is just 25 and put up three sacks with the New Orleans Saints in 2012. The Cowboys liked him in 2011 but not so much as a fit for their 3-4 scheme at the time. It would be a long shot for Wilson to become an every-down player but he could be a situational pass-rusher. Given the state of their defensive line, the Cowboys have to take a look at everybody.

Would Michael Sam fit Cowboys' D?

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
2:45
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IRVING, Texas -- From a football perspective, the Dallas Cowboys have to figure out if Michael Sam is a fit for their defense.

If the Cowboys still ran a 3-4 defense, the answer might be more definitive. At 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, Sam, who revealed on Sunday that he is gay, is built more like an outside linebacker in a 3-4.

Now that the Cowboys run a 4-3, Sam might not fit as well as he might be too small to play defensive end.

Of the six defensive ends on the Cowboys’ roster at the end of the 2013 season, only DeMarcus Ware (258) and Martez Wilson (252) were lighter than Sam. At 6-1, Everette Brown was the shortest defensive end on the roster and he was a role player after signing with the Cowboys during the season.

Sam was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year out of Missouri after leading the conference in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18).

When he played outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl, teams were not blown away by his athleticism. Just as a comparison, Ware was able to answer the question during the 2005 Senior Bowl that he could make the move from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker.

The Cowboys generated only 34 sacks in 2013, so finding pressure players is a must if they are to improve in 2014. Sam showed he can get after the quarterback at Missouri and he will get the chance to show if he can do it at the NFL level.

For the Cowboys, he might be more of a situational pass-rusher than an every-down player. If he’s not an every-down player, then he would figure to be a middle- to late-round pick.

Cowboys position breakdown: D-line

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
10:00
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Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: DeMarcus Ware, George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Corvey Irvin, Martez Wilson, Everette Brown, Frank Kearse, Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford, Edgar Jones, Caesar Rayford

A look back: Jason Hatcher had the best season of his career with 11 sacks and was added to the Pro Bowl, but the defensive line play in 2013 was shoddy and played a big part in why the Cowboys finished last in the NFL in defense.

Spencer
Monte Kiffin’s defense is predicated on the front four getting pressure, and they did not affect the quarterback enough. From the first day of training camp on, the group was beset by injury. Tyrone Crawford tore his Achilles on the first day. Jay Ratliff never played a down and was cut in October. Anthony Spencer played in one game before needing microfracture surgery on his knee. The Cowboys used 20 different defensive linemen during the season. They hit on George Selvie, who started every game and had seven sacks, and received some moments from Nick Hayden as well, but the group just wasn’t good enough.

DeMarcus Ware missed three games with a quadriceps strain and had a career-low six sacks. He had four sacks in the first three games. Whether it was injury or age, Ware was not the same player in 2013 as he was even in 2012, when he had 11.5 sacks but was limited by shoulder and elbow injuries.

A look ahead: The biggest decision the Cowboys have to make is on Ware. He is to count $16.003 million against the salary cap with a $12.25 million base salary. Do the Cowboys ask him to take a pay cut, or do they restructure his deal in order to create room?

It is a delicate decision that owner and general manager Jerry Jones has been loathed to make in the past. There is no way Ware can count that much against the cap.

It seems almost a given that Hatcher will leave as a free agent. The team does not have the cap space to keep him, and it is difficult to commit big money to a soon-to-be 32-year-old defensive end. The chances of Spencer returning as a free agent are better just because his price will be kept low.

Crawford could be the key to the group, but the Cowboys should not bank on him being an every-down player coming off the injury. He played well as a rookie in 2012, but did not have a sack. His plus, however, is versatility. He could play all along the line. The question for Selvie is whether 2013 was an anomaly or a sign that he finally figured it out.

A look out: Last season's free-agent market was light for defensive linemen, so that could help the Cowboys in possibly keeping Hatcher, but he will take the best offer with this being his last chance to cash in.

Finding free agent help will be difficult, so the best chance to improve is in the draft. They made a mistake in not choosing a defensive lineman last year, and they can’t do that again this year. They need to find a pass-rusher, a run defender and a multi-faceted player. Getting one or two in the early rounds seems imperative.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers

Cowboys snap counts: defense

January, 6, 2014
Jan 6
3:30
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IRVING, Texas -- No team in the NFL needed more players on defense than the Dallas Cowboys in 2013.

They had 41 defenders with cornerback Brandon Carr playing the most (1,116 snaps) and Dez Bryant playing the least (three). The Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints had the second most with 32 players on defense.

In training camp, the Cowboys’ projected defensive line was Anthony Spencer, Jason Hatcher, Jeremiah Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware. Hatcher played the most snaps (747) but that was only 66 percent of the snaps. Ware missed three games and played 628 snaps (55 percent). Spencer played 34 snaps in one game before his season ended. Ratliff, of course, played none before his release.

Nick Hayden played the most snaps on the defensive line (821). George Selvie did not join the team until training camp began and played 744 snaps.

With Hatcher and Spencer set to be free agents and Ware coming off a career-low six sacks, the Cowboys need to refurbish their defensive line in a way where Hayden and Selvie are not playing as much.

The Cowboys used 20 defensive linemen during the season, although Kyle Wilber moved to linebacker late in the season and played 501 snaps.

It might not have seemed this way, but Jeff Heath played only 79 more snaps than J.J. Wilcox.

Defensive snaps:

1,116 – Brandon Carr
1,088 – Orlando Scandrick
1,015 – Barry Church
874 – Bruce Carter
821 - Nick Hayden
747 – Jason Hatcher
744 – George Selvie
702 – Sean Lee
628 - DeMarcus Ware
594 - Jeff Heath
515 - J.J. Wilcox
506 – Morris Claiborne
501 – Kyle Wilber
380 – Ernie Sims
275 – Jarius Wynn
254 - Drake Nevis
207 – DeVonte Holloman
197 – Justin Durant
178 – B.W. Webb
163 – Will Allen
153 – Everette Brown
144 – Caesar Rayford
117 – Corvey Irvin
81 – Sterling Moore
72 - Edgar Jones
63 – Cameron Lawrence
49 – David Carter
46 – Jason Vega
45 – Jerome Long
38 – Landon Cohen
34 – Anthony Spencer
34 – Frank Kearse
24 – Kyle Bosworth
22 – Micah Pellerin
20 – Everett Dawkins
20 – Martez Wilson
16 – Jakar Hamilton
15 – Marvin Austin
8 – Danny McCray
6 – Orie Lemon
3 – Dez Bryant

Pondering the 46: Down to the corners

December, 28, 2013
12/28/13
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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have yet to place Tony Romo on injured reserve. They really don't have the need to make the formal move just yet, so as we Ponder the 46, Romo will be one of the inactives.

Sean Lee is out with a neck strain. Ernie Sims is doubtful but he has not practiced the last two weeks because of a groin injury. Darrion Weems and Jakar Hamilton will also be inactive. Martez Wilson has been inactive the last two games, so he is likely to be down for his third straight game.

That leaves one spot and with Morris Claiborne coming back from a hamstring injury, rookie cornerback B.W. Webb is in the crosshairs.

Webb has been active for every game, but he lost his playing time to Sterling Moore the last few games. Maybe the Cowboys cover themselves by bringing a fifth cornerback to the game in case Claiborne aggravates his hamstring again, but they have had only four active for the season.

Perhaps they could go lighter on the defensive line, but with LeSean McCoy running and DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Jarius Wynn and George Selvie all nicked to some degree, that doesn't seem to be the wise choice.

So the inactives will be: Romo, Lee, Sims, Weems, Hamilton, Wilson and Webb.

Cowboys on 6th different LB trio

December, 22, 2013
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LANDOVER, Md. -- With Sean Lee (neck) and Ernie Sims (groin) inactive for Sunday’s game against the Washington Redskins, the Dallas Cowboys will be starting their sixth different grouping of the season at linebacker.

Rookie DeVonte Holloman will start at middle linebacker for Lee with Bruce Carter at weakside linebacker and Kyle Wilber at strongside linebacker. Carter is returning from a one-game absence due to a hamstring injury.

The other pairings used this year (from strong to weak): Justin Durant, Lee, Carter; Sims, Lee, Carter; Wilber, Sims, Carter; Wilber, Lee, Carter; Wilber, Durant, Sims.

Wide receiver Dwayne Harris, safety Jakar Hamilton, cornerback Morris Claiborne, defensive end Martez Wilson and tackle Darrion Weems are also inactive.

Pondering the 46: Room for Spurlock?

December, 21, 2013
12/21/13
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IRVING, Texas -- Sometimes when Pondering the 46, you have to figure out how to get a player to the game and not how to come up with seven inactive players.

That’s the case with receiver/returner Michael Spurlock this week against the Washington Redskins.

The Cowboys would not have signed him this week if they were pleased with their return game in Dwayne Harris' absence. Even if Terrance Williams didn’t have a strained hamstring, Spurlock would be here.

But how does he make it to the 46?

We know Dwayne Harris, Sean Lee and Morris Claiborne are out with injuries, even though Claiborne is officially listed as doubtful. Ernie Sims is likely to be out, too, but he is doubtful with a groin injury. We know Darrion Weems and Jakar Hamilton will be inactive.

Williams is listed as questionable. If he can’t play, then Spurlock gets that spot. If he can play, then the Cowboys will have to figure out where they go light.

It can’t be at linebacker. They have only five healthy linebackers. It can’t be on the offensive line. They have to take seven to the game. It can’t be quarterback, tight end, secondary or the specialists either.

We’re down to running back and defensive line. Phillip Tanner has special teams value, and if they need to run out the clock late I would think they would go with him if something happened to DeMarco Murray.

So now we’re down to the defensive line. Two weeks ago Everette Brown did not dress. Last week it was Martez Wilson. Jarius Wynn is questionable with a chest injury. They need to get after Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, so pass rush will be at a premium. I think they will carry all of their ends. That leaves newcomer Frank Kearse. Signed on Wednesday off the Tennessee Titans practice squad, he brings some size to the line, but that might not be enough to get him on the 46.

The inactives: Lee, Harris, Claiborne, Hamilton, Weems, Sims, Kearse.

Ponder the 46: Can Clutts get on the field?

December, 8, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Now that fullback Tyler Clutts is here to save the Dallas Cowboys running game, can he get on the game-day roster?

Let's take a look as we Ponder the 46 for Monday's game against the Chicago Bears.

First, let's go with the knowns: Darrion Weems and Jakar Hamilton will be inactive. A hamstring injury will keep Morris Claiborne out. The returns of Sean Lee and Justin Durant will give the Cowboys extra linebackers, so Orie Lemon and DeVonte Holloman are the top picks to be inactive.

Dwayne Harris is officially questionable and was limited in Saturday's practice. If he plays, the Cowboys might have no choice but to make Clutts inactive. The Cowboys have been conservative with hamstring injuries all year, so maybe they give Harris another week to feel better.

That brings us down to the defensive line. The Cowboys have nine of them. Can they dress them all? Sure, but then you have to find another spot to go lighter. Perhaps they go lighter at defensive back, which would put Sterling Moore in the conversation, but with Claiborne out, they need another cornerback.

The Cowboys are heavy with ends. Martez Wilson is the newcomer but he played against the Raiders with little practice. The Cowboys like his pass rush. Jarius Wynn and Everette Brown have been quiet the last few games, but know the system better.

So with that, here's the guess at the inactives: Weems, Hamilton, Claiborne, Harris, Lemon, Holloman and Wynn.

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