Dallas Cowboys: Orlando Scandrick

Garrett enters his biggest season -- again

July, 21, 2014
Jul 21
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Jason GarrettAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherJason Garrett enters his fourth full season as Dallas' coach searching for his first playoff appearance.
IRVING, Texas -- This is the biggest year of Jason Garrett's coaching career with the Dallas Cowboys.

That's after 2013 was the biggest. And 2012. And probably 2011, even if it was his first full year as a head coach and the offseason was shortened because of a lockout. This is Dallas, after all, where winning is a birthright, even if those fans born after Jan. 28, 1996, have never seen their team make a conference title game.

But now we mean it. This year -- 2014 -- is the biggest in Garrett’s coaching career.

Basically we mean it because there are no more options for Garrett. He is not under contract for 2015 with the Cowboys. He is in a contract year the way Dez Bryant, Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray are.

The good news for Garrett is that the outside expectations have never been lower in his run as the Cowboys’ head coach. The offseason predictions, which are often ludicrous anyway, have the Cowboys tumbling from 8-8 to 5-11 or worse.

The bad news is that he has a defense that has a ton of questions at every level. Pick a defensive lineman and there is a question. Pick a linebacker and there is a question. Pick a defensive back not named Barry Church or Orlando Scandrick and there is a question.

On offense things look much better, provided quarterback Tony Romo is able to come back from back surgery to play at a high level. To some that might be a huge "if" considering Romo’s age (34), but the general feeling is that everything will be fine with the quarterback, who had 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 starts in 2013. Add Bryant, Jason Witten, Murray and an offensive line that should be this franchise’s best since 2007 and you can see the offense putting up yards and points this season.

That is where Garrett has to hang his hat if he wants to be the Cowboys’ head coach or another team’s head coach in 2015. And he can’t really hang his hat in the room, because he won’t be in the room as much as he has been.

One of Garrett's themes of 2013 was that he was entering what was the biggest year of his coaching career and unable to do what he does best -- run the offense -- because Jerry Jones gave those duties to Bill Callahan. Garrett won’t be running the offense in 2014 either, but neither will Callahan. Garrett at least has his guy, Scott Linehan, running it this season. So that is a slight bonus for Garrett.

The better news for Garrett is that if he makes the playoffs, he can control his future.

Looking objectively at what he has done since taking over as the full-time coach, there have been positive signs and mistakes that have cost the Cowboys games. The general direction of the team is better than it was when he took over. Troy Aikman said this offseason that if Garrett is not back in 2015, then the next coach will benefit from the foundation Garrett put down.

There aren’t many people outside of Valley Ranch giving the Cowboys a chance to compete in the NFC East in 2014. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the division last season and had the worst defense in the league. If they are a tick better on defense this season, can’t they contend? When did the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Washington Redskins become such juggernauts?

If the Cowboys made the playoffs, would Garrett become a hot commodity again? Would teams look at the big picture of the mess he inherited, how he kept the team competitive in a retooling if not rebuilding mode and how he worked with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, and view Garrett differently than he is viewed now?

Perhaps, and that would put him in a position of leverage.

Garrett will not address his future no matter how many times he is asked. He gives the same answer about keeping his focus on being the best coach he can be each and every day. Jones has been patient with Garrett and he doesn’t mind that the coach is in a lame-duck status. Jones wants to see the Cowboys reap the rewards of working through some of Garrett’s missteps made because of inexperience in his first three seasons.

This week Jones will be sitting next to Garrett and will be asked about the coach’s long-term status. He will profess faith in Garrett, extoll what he has done in his first three seasons and talk about the potential payoff coming in 2014.

If it doesn’t come this season, then all bets are off.

That is why this year -- 2014 -- is the biggest year of Garrett’s coaching career.

Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
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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.

Camp preview: Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

Filling out Cowboys' roster: Cornerbacks

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
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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.

Cornerbacks

On the roster: Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Morris Claiborne, Sterling Moore, B.W. Webb, Terrance Mitchell, Tyler Patmon, Dashaun Phillips

Locks: Carr, Scandrick, Claiborne

Inside track: Moore, Mitchell

Need help: Webb, Patmon, Phillips

How many fit? Remember when the Cowboys kept only three cornerbacks a few years ago? And the fourth was Alan Ball, who was a starting safety? They can’t go that light again, but the Cowboys rarely used a dime package (six defensive backs) last season and Rod Marinelli did not use it much when he was with the Chicago Bears.

While some teams will carry six cornerbacks, taking five is the most likely option.

Carr, Scandrick and Claiborne are starters (yes, the third corner is like a starter). The remaining two spots are up for grabs, but Moore’s ability to play inside and outside should give him a leg up provided he plays as well in the summer as he did in the spring. He should have had the job last season, but the Cowboys kept Webb instead and he never really developed as a rookie. Webb’s struggles continued for most of the spring, but he was a little better in the minicamp. His draft status last season was a big part of why he made the roster, but he might not be so fortunate this summer.

Mitchell missed most of the offseason because Oregon did not graduate until late, but he made a favorable impression at the minicamp. The coaches like his swagger and he also possesses good size. The Cowboys feel lucky that they were able to grab him in the seventh round. Phillips was given the largest signing bonus of any undrafted free agent ($7,500) and Patmon earned a spot on the 90-man roster by making the most of an invite to the rookie minicamp. Of the two, Patmon was noticed more in the spring, but Phillips showed ability to go get the ball at Tarleton State.

The series:

Quarterbacks
Specialists
Running backs
Safeties
Wide receivers

Barry Church to enter new role for Cowboys

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
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IRVING, Texas -- A year ago, Barry Church was something of a question mark.

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.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church
AP Photo/James D SmithMore will be asked of Barry Church this season.
Anthony Spencer is the most tenured, but he might not play until the seventh game of the season. Orlando Scandrick has the most Dallas experience among the defensive backs, but he will be pushed for a starting job by Morris Claiborne. Bruce Carter has more career starts, but the linebacker is enigmatic to say the least.

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.”

Cowboys' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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IRVING, Texas -- Since Tony Romo took over as quarterback, the success of the Dallas Cowboys has mostly centered on Romo's effectiveness.

Romo
He has played well enough in the past three seasons to throw 90 touchdown passes and get intercepted 39 times, but the Cowboys have not been able to finish better than 8-8 and have missed the playoffs. They have not qualified for the postseason since 2009.

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.

Best case/worst case: Cornerbacks

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
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IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.

This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players who will go a long way in shaping the Cowboys' season.

The cornerbacks

Best case: They lock it down

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

Worst case: No help from the pass rush

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

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.

[+] EnlargeBarry Church and Morris Claiborne
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsDallas defensive backs Barry Church and Morris Claiborne didn't have much to celebrate during 2013.
But there’s something else Marinelli likes about the group.

“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.”

Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

June, 21, 2014
Jun 21
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Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it, we discuss:
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. @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. @toddarcher: If you're talking left defensive end, then sure. If you're looking for a pure right defensive end, then no. But he has position flexibility. He can move inside if necessary as well. The left side has to be a stronger player at the point of attack. He is that type of guy and he has some good pass rush to him, but not to the point where you can say he would be a 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. @toddarcher: He has done a better job. He appears to be playing more confident. Now, does that mean he is a shutdown corner worth the No. 6 pick in the draft? I don't want to go that far from watching football in helmets and jerseys in the spring, but it sure beats the alternative. He is as healthy as he has been, which plays a part into the confidence. He's not thinking about injuries out there. His comments at the end of the minicamp were encouraging. He was going to take a few days off here and there between now and training camp but he planned on staying on the grind. That's good news. He knows how important this year is to him. The Cowboys need him as much as anybody else on defense to be successful. As I said, I like what I've seen but I still think 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. @toddarcher: Yes, there is. If you want to take a look at the 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. 

Mo Claiborne: I'm ready

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
10:00
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IRVING, Texas -- Morris Claiborne's first two seasons have been frustrating for everybody with the Dallas Cowboys, but especially him.

Selected sixth overall in 2012, Claiborne has two interceptions in two seasons and missed six games last year with recurring hamstring injuries. With the offseason over, Claiborne believes 2014 will be different.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
AP Photo/James D SmithMorris Claiborne has been challenging Dez Bryant at every opportunity during offseason sessions.

"I'm ready," Claiborne said. "Hands down, point blank, I'm ready. I feel better than I've ever felt in a long time. I'm just anxious for you guys to start asking me something else: What about the interception you made? I'm ready for those type questions."

Expectations were raised ever since the Cowboys traded up to get him and immediately said he was the highest-graded defensive back they have had since Deion Sanders. The production on the field has not matched it. He lost his job to Orlando Scandrick last season and there is no guarantee he can win it back.

But defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson has noticed a different Claiborne.

"Competing his butt off," Henderson said. "He's embraced that he's got to play better, and he's doing a good job."

Coach Jason Garrett has noticed a different Claiborne physically. He has not added weight, but Garrett believes Claiborne is stronger. He has had to rehab from shoulder and finger surgeries this offseason.

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"He's more mature physically, and I think his technique is getting better," Garrett said. "I think with that, you develop some confidence, and you need confidence in any position you play, but you certainly need it if you play corner in the NFL. You're out there by yourself a lot."

With five weeks to go before the Cowboys head to California for training camp, Claiborne has a couple of weekend trips scheduled but he plans on working out through the summer.

"I just don't want to lose nothing that I have now," he said. "We have a lot of time before we actually get to camp and all but there's things that I built right now. I felt like I put so much into this offseason and I invested so much. I don't want to lose that. I'm still going to be on my grind like it's still the (organized team activities) or we're about to report next week."

It has not been perfect, but it has been better for Claiborne. He allowed Dez Bryant to sneak in for a touchdown Wednesday but later broke up a back-shoulder throw in the end zone to Devin Street. He has found himself going against Bryant daily in practice. When they weren't matched up, he pulled a younger cornerback from the field in order to be matched up against Bryant.

"Me and him talked about it before we even started up that we want to be the best and we want to go against each other," Claiborne said. "We feel like we both compete at a high level. I get good work when I go against him and it's vice versa. When I'm not up there, he's telling me to come. We're trying to help each other so we can be the best for our team."

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

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

In it we discuss:
Away we go:

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

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 1

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
10:30
AM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 1 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

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:
@toddarcher: The odds say the defense can't be worse than it was last year, but I was saying the same thing about the 2013 defense compared to the previous year. Look where that got me. The Cowboys don't have a pass-rusher better than 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. @toddarcher: Well, 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. @toddarcher: If I was putting together a 53-man roster right now, Webb would not be on it. 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. @toddarcher: It's still a surgery. They still had to knock him out. It still kept him out for an entire offseason. Jerry Jones likened it to a toothache, but it was enough to keep him out of everything. Was it as serious as the one he had last December? No, but it's still something. It's still accurate. @toddarcher: I wish I could say he's been different than in the past, but he's been about the same. I'm not meaning to sound down on him, but it's difficult to cover 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.

Cowboys' Twitter mailbag, Part 2

June, 7, 2014
Jun 7
12:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

** The ceiling of the defense
** The future of Brandon Carr
** The backup wide receivers
** The role for Dwayne Harris
** And if they keep a fullback.

If you want to see Part 1, click here.

Away we go:

 

Orlando Scandrick becomes the leader

June, 6, 2014
Jun 6
10:00
AM ET
Orlando Scandrick has been one of the better cornerbacks on the Dallas Cowboys' roster the last few seasons.

Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys' 2012 first-round pick, has been inconsistent. Brandon Carr, the veteran corner with the high-priced salary, hasn't made enough plays.

Scandrick
That leaves Scandrick, who emerged as a starter over Claiborne and turned himself into more than a slot corner. His ability to play in the slot and outside and cover the opponent's best receiver makes him a valuable member of the secondary.

"I'm trying to get a little better. I'm a veteran player and I just need to get better," he said. "I don't feel like I've reached my ceiling yet. I've just got to continue to get better and I need to focus on making the plays that I can make. Start watching the tape in the offseason, and I can think of games where I dropped interceptions -- Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia -- these are plays where I've got to make the play."

Scandrick doesn't have the best hands on the team -- he had just two interceptions in 2013. He had 12 pass breakups and allowed four touchdowns but according to Stats Inc. was burned 50 times -- tied for 14th in the league and second on the team to Carr, who was beaten 62 times.

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Who will be the Cowboys' money player on defense?

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One of the main things the Cowboys' defensive coaches have preached the last two seasons is snagging the ball. Turnovers have become a point of contention around Valley Ranch because -- well, let's be honest -- they're a rarity with the team.

During practices, whether it's an organized team activity, training camp or minicamp, you hear coaches yelling at defensive players to create a turnover by snatching the ball out of a receiver's or running back's hand, trying to scoop up a fumble or pick the ball off.

"Just focusing on catching the ball and looking the ball in," Scandrick said. "When you catch it, you've got to see it into the pocket. And those were some of my issues last year. I was catching the ball and turning my head. But I'm just trying to come out here every day and stay positive and just be humble."

With Sean Lee (four interceptions in 2013) out for the season with a torn ACL, more pressure is placed on players like Scandrick to create turnovers in a pass-happy league.

Leadership is also lost with Lee on the sidelines. This is where Scandrick comes in.

"It's a lot, it's humbling," Scandrick said of losing Lee. "I feel like with Sean, I look around, [and] out of all these faces, I've been here the longest. The onus is kind of on myself. I gotta just work every day. Leadership ain't all about screaming and hollering. You can get anybody who can scream and holler and tell you what they've done and what the accolades are ... . I put it on myself to try and figure out a way to motivate and motivate our defense and motivate our secondary and motivate our corners. Losing Sean Lee was a tough pill to swallow."
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.

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Who will be the Cowboys' money player on defense?

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    16%
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    26%
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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.

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