NFC East: Anthony Spencer

IRVING, Texas -- Three thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key number: 20

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

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

Player to Watch: Tyler Clutts

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

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

He needs to be a core player on special teams, and he needs to be a difference-maker on the 12 to 15 crucial goal-line and short-yardage plays the Cowboys will have this season.
OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts from the Cowboys’ first news conference of training camp:
  • I’m not obsessing over the conditioning test the players took by themselves after coach Jason Garrett called it off, but it still doesn’t make sense. Garrett said Wednesday that he told the players at the end of their last minicamp that their attendance and performance had been so good that he decided to cancel the conditioning best. Besides, Garrett said he wasn’t sure it served a useful purpose anymore and it put the players at more risk because the conditioning test doesn’t require many football movements, per se. All of that is fine. But if that’s the case, then he should’ve been fuming that Jason Witten apparently encouraged the players to do it themselves. That’s not a knock on Witten, but if the coach is adamant about not doing something then the players shouldn't ignore his request and do it anyway.
  • You have to wonder if the Cowboys’ offensive coaching staff is set up to succeed with all of the changes. Obviously, owner Jerry Jones and Garrett think it’ll work fine, but neither of them was demoted. Garrett was sending the plays into Tony Romo at the end of last season instead of Bill Callahan. Now, Callahan is out of the mix entirely having been replaced by Scott Linehan. Then you have assistant offensive line coach Frank Pollack, who did a nice job last year. Now, he’ll probably have less responsibility because Callahan has more time to work with the line since he’s not putting the game plan together. A lot of people must subjugate their egos to make this staff work. It’ll be interesting to see if they can do it.
  • Anthony Spencer still isn’t ready to practice, so he’s been put on the physically unable to perform list. He’s been limited all offseason as he recovers from micro fracture surgery. It’s OK to wonder if he’ll ever play again.
44.3: The 12 playoff teams from last season ran the ball 44.3 percent of the time. The Cowboys ran it 35.1 percent of the time.

Garrett can use any stat or rationalization he wants, but that’s not a winning number. Only one team ranked among the bottom 10 in percent of rushing attempts made the playoffs -- and that was New Orleans.

Nine playoff teams ranked among the top 16 in percentage of rushing attempts. This is a passing league and you have to make big plays in the passing game to score points, but the best teams can still run it when they need to run and when they want to run.

Player to Watch: Brandon Weeden

It’s not normal to pay that much attention to the backup quarterback, especially when a team has a quality starter. But Tony Romo has had two back surgeries in the past year and backup Brandon Weeden is here because he was a first-round bust in Cleveland

He has talent and with a better supporting cast, he could be a solid backup. The key, as usual for a quarterback, will be limiting his mistakes. He had nine games with multiple interceptions with Cleveland and the Browns were 1-8. He had nine games with no interceptions and the Browns were 4-5.

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.
IRVING, Texas -- It's a week before the Dallas Cowboys arrive in Oxnard, California, for training camp and we already know just how big of a year it is for Bruce Carter.

It's been written and talked about countless times in the offseason.

[+] EnlargeDallas' Bruce Carter
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesCowboys linebacker Bruce Carter, a second-round pick by Dallas in 2011, is set to become a free agent after this season.
Carter is entering the final year of his rookie contract, set to become a free agent after the season. At one point he was viewed as a core player, vital to the future growth of the Cowboys' defense. After a frustrating 2013 season, he is not viewed that way anymore.

But it doesn't mean he can't be viewed that way again.

In 2011, Anthony Spencer was in a contract year and tied his career high with six sacks. He also had 31 quarterback pressures and four forced fumbles. His overall game made him a valuable player in the Cowboys' 3-4.

The Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Spencer for the 2012 season.

In another contract year, Spencer had his best season, putting up a career-high 11 sacks and earning his first Pro Bowl bid.

The Cowboys put the franchise tag on him again for 2013, guaranteeing him nearly $20 million over the two seasons in which he was tagged.

Last season, he played in only one game because of a knee injury that required microfracture surgery and might keep him out of the beginning of this season. Once again he is in a contract year, having signed a one-year deal that could be worth as much as $3.5 million.

Jason Hatcher was in a contract year last year and responded with his best season. He had 11 sacks -- after putting up just 16 in his previous seven -- and was named to the Pro Bowl. His age -- he turned 32 on Sunday -- kept the Cowboys from making a play at re-signing him, but the Washington Redskins signed him to a four-year, $27.5 million deal as a free agent.

Way back in 2007, Ken Hamlin joined the Cowboys on a one-year deal. He put up a career-high five picks and was named to the Pro Bowl. Prior to the 2008 season, he signed a six-year, $39 million deal with the Cowboys that included $15 million guaranteed. He was cut after the 2009 season.

Some contract years have not been as productive. Cornerback Mike Jenkins saw the Cowboys add Brandon Carr in free agency with a $50 million deal and draft Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. Jenkins was coming off shoulder surgery, did his rehab elsewhere and started only two of 13 games in 2012. He signed with the Oakland Raiders.

Gerald Sensabaugh played on three straight one-year deals with the Cowboys from 2009-11 before cashing in at the end of the 2011 season with a five-year, $22.5 million deal that included $8 million guaranteed. He was cut after the 2012 season.

Which brings us back to Carter, the club's second-round pick in 2011.

"That's certainly a cliché thing in all of sports, that people talk about, 'He's in a contract year and he's going to take a different approach than he had up till this point,'" coach Jason Garrett said. "I don't know if I buy that with guys that I have been around. I think Bruce Carter wants to be a really good football player. I think that's independent of anything that is going on in the business side. I think getting comfortable in this scheme for the second year -- I think Sean Lee's absence will help him. It will force him to step up a little bit more. It will force Justin Durant to step up a little bit more. Sometimes you can have a player as strong as Sean Lee is -- such a great leader like Sean is -- sometimes you defer to that guy. I think it's really important for those guys to understand he's not here right now. They have to step up. They've done a better job of that throughout the OTAs and minicamp."

Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said Carter has "ramped up," the meetings with the position coach in the offseason.

"I think he's taking steps in the right direction," Eberflus said. "And he's putting the work in. He's meeting with me as much as he can. Studying the tape, giving him clear and concise goals daily for practice and he's doing a good job of attaining those goals each and every day so when he does that he takes steps in the right direction to improve his fundamentals and his game."
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.”

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.

McClain
If that holds up, then the Cowboys might have found the guy to man the middle linebacker spot that opened when Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May. The Cowboys mostly worked veteran Justin Durant at Lee's spot in the organized team activities and minicamp, but dabbled with rookie Anthony Hitchens and second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman at the spot.

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.
IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones is the eternal optimist, as we all know.

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.

Jones
Jones
Why?

"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."
IRVING, Texas -- Through the organized team activities, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has been kept out of competitive drills as well as some individual work as he recovers from December back surgery.

Romo
With the Cowboys' minicamp starting Tuesday, Romo will continue down the same road. Romo has said recently he expects to be 100 percent within a few weeks, but that time frame comes after the Cowboys' offseason is over.

"We'll take him day-by-day like we do with all the other guys," Garrett said last week, "but I don't see it changing dramatically."

Romo has gone through walkthrough drills with the first-team offense and thrown individual routes with wide receivers, running backs and tight ends. He has not taken a snap in 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 drills. He has also sat out of the quarterback's footwork drills as the team attempts to protect him from jarring motions as much as possible.

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Romo will not be the only Cowboy to likely be limited because of injury during the three-day minicamp. Wide receiver L'Damian Washington (shoulder), wide receiver Devin Street (quadriceps bruise), safety Matt Johnson (hamstring), linebacker DeVonte Holloman, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, defensive end Ben Gardner (groin), defensive tackle Amobi Okoye (illness), defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee), defensive tackle Chris Whaley (knee), wide receiver Dwayne Harris (shoulder), defensive end George Selvie (shoulder), defensive end Caesar Rayford (shoulder) have been either slowed by injury during all or part of the offseason program.

Johnson took part in just one OTA before his hamstring tightened up. Because of his history (he missed his rookie season with recurring hamstring injuries) the Cowboys have wanted to protect Johnson. He missed last season because of foot surgery.

He is hoping to take part in the minicamp in some fashion.

"I've just been making sure it's good to go," Johnson said. "I think we're being over-cautious but I feel good."

Cornerback Terrance Mitchell, one of the Cowboys' five seventh-round picks, will take part in team drills for the first time since the rookie minicamp in May. League rules prevented him from showing up before June 13 because Oregon had not graduated.
IRVING, Texas -- Part 2 of the Dallas Cowboys' Twitter mailbag is ready.

In it we discuss:

If you want to read Part 1 of the mailbag, click here.

Away we go:

Cowboys offseason wrap-up

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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» NFC Wrap: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South » Grades

With free agency and the NFL draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple months away, we assess the Dallas Cowboys' offseason moves.

Best move: The Cowboys could not make big splashes in free agency and their 8-8 record kept them in the middle of the pack in the draft as well, so the best move was not one regarding personnel. It was coaching. Elevating Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator after the Cowboys finished last in the league in 2013 was their best move. With the Chicago Bears, Marinelli had a difference-making defense that could create turnovers at will. He also had Pro Bowl-quality players such as Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. He does not have that in bountiful supply in Dallas, unless Sean Lee can stay healthy or Henry Melton returns to form from injury.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/Kevin TerrellWill the Dallas Cowboys regret not re-signing DeMarcus Ware?
Riskiest move: DeMarcus Ware put up 119 sacks with the Cowboys from 2005-13, but the club believed it was time to move on after Ware had just six in 2013. A quadriceps injury forced Ware to miss the first three games of his career in 2013 and he was slowed by other maladies. The Cowboys did not make an attempt to offer Ware a reduced contract and simply cut him. Within 24 hours he was signed to a three-year deal by the Denver Broncos with $20 million guaranteed. For this 4-3 scheme to work, there must be an accomplished right defensive end. The Cowboys believed Ware’s time as a dominant pass-rusher was over but did not pick up his replacement until the second round of the draft, selecting DeMarcus Lawrence.

Most surprising move: With the 16th pick in the first round, the Cowboys had a chance to select Johnny Manziel to be Tony Romo’s eventual successor. It seemed to be a perfect marriage of the attention Jerry Jones seeks and the spotlight Johnny Football enjoys. Jones passed on Manziel, recommitting his faith in Romo, who signed a six-year, $108 million extension last season, and making a smart move in picking up Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. He will be a Day 1 starter and give the Cowboys three first-round picks on their offensive line, which will help Romo and potentially help a defense if the Cowboys can control the clock.

Numbers game: The emphasis of the Cowboys’ offseason has been about the defense, but they have taken a quantity-over-quality look. They had some interest in Peppers and Jared Allen after releasing Ware, but only at a reduced rate. The Cowboys signed Melton, who is coming off an ACL injury, to a one-year deal with an option for three more years if he plays at a high level. They signed Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain to low-risk deals. They kept Anthony Spencer, who is coming back from microfracture surgery, on a one-year deal. They even signed Amobi Okoye, who did not play last season due to personal medical issues, in hopes a reunion with Marinelli will rejuvenate him. The flashiest addition might be Lawrence, and it is difficult to expect rookies to hit the league running.
IRVING, Texas -- With a rookie minicamp out of the way and the organized team activities starting next week, it's time for the award-winning Five Wonders.

Away we go:
  1. Free
    When the Cowboys picked Zack Martin in the first round, the assumption was that he would (or could) move to right tackle in 2015 with Doug Free in the final year of his contract. I wonder if the Cowboys look to extend Free's contract this offseason. Free is set to make $3.5 million in 2014 as part of a re-worked deal he signed last year. The final two years of his contract void after this season, which means he will count $3.98 million against the cap if he's not a Cowboy in 2015. That's not a reason to keep him. He rebounded with a decent 2013 season and he just turned 30. The Cowboys need to be sensible with a new deal and we've spent the offseason talking about not paying age, which was part of the reason why they said goodbye to DeMarcus Ware and never really tried to keep Jason Hatcher. But tackles tend to play longer. Flozell Adams played his best after he turned 30. This isn't to predict Pro Bowl success for Free; just an example. As for Martin, it was interesting to hear Jerry Jones reference multiple times the importance of being stout in the middle of the line. Keeping Martin at guard might make sense.

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  2. By signing Ryan Williams to a one-year deal with no guaranteed money this week, the Cowboys have opened up the competition behind DeMarco Murray. I wonder if they can keep four tailbacks. They did the last couple of years because Phillip Tanner was able to play on most of the special teams' units. Williams' injury history would seem to keep him away from special teams. Lance Dunbar covered some kicks and punts last year, but he had a difficult time staying healthy. Joseph Randle will have to work to be a special teamer. If the Cowboys don't keep a fourth tailback it would allow them to go heavier at tight end or offensive line or even carry a third quarterback, depending on what Kyle Orton decides to do this year. It would also open up a potential spot on the practice squad for a tailback as well.

  3. The Cowboys have made adding defensive linemen to the mix an offseason priority. They want to throw numbers at the position. The Cowboys want to mix the snaps around to keep players fresh. I wonder if Henry Melton or Anthony Spencer can come even close to cashing in on their playing time incentives. Both players have to get healthy first, but Melton is further along in his rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament than Spencer is in his return from microfracture surgery. Melton and Spencer can earn up to $1.5 million apiece depending on certain play-time percentages. Melton can earn $250,000 for 50 percent play time and up to $750,000 if he reaches 70 percent. He has never played more than 60 percent in a season. Spencer' play-time incentive levels are 65 percent ($250,000), 75 percent ($500,000) and 85 percent ($750,000). If he starts the year on the physically unable to perform list, then he would be lucky to hit on the lowest threshold.

  4. I wonder if Jason Garrett's decision to scale back one day of the rookie minicamp because of the number of players who were hurt or were slowed by dehydration is a sign that he will be more compromising in his practice schedule throughout the year. The Cowboys have studied how other teams go about their practices and have dealt with injuries, but the general conclusion is they are doing the right things. Too many players suffered hamstring injuries the last few years. The Cowboys installed ballet bars outside the locker room to help with stretching pre- and post-practice, but I've maintained Garrett needs to cut back on his practice time. You don't want to leave your best work at Valley Ranch during the season. The Cowboys are one of the teams that use GPS devices on players to measure how much they practice, distances traveled and other pieces of information. If the numbers indicate a player has reached a threshold, then they need to rest that guy so as to not risk it. He can call it an adjustment to the new collective bargaining agreement that has shortened the offseason conditioning program. Who knows, it might just work. And it beats the alternative.

  5. On the list of position battles, punter will rank low on the list, but I wonder if undrafted Cody Mandell can push Chris Jones this summer. Mandell averaged 47.1 yards per punt last season at Alabama with a 42.1-yard net average. He had 14 punts of more than 50 yards and 15 ended up inside the 20. He had six touchbacks. Jones will go to camp as the leader without question. He averaged 45 yards per punt and had a 39-yard net average. He had 30 punts inside the 20 and just six touchbacks. He also developed into a reliable holder for Dan Bailey, which cannot be overlooked. And another aspect gives Jones an edge: he's left-footed.
IRVING, Texas -- These are tough odds Anthony Spencer faces right now.

The Dallas Cowboys' defensive end is recovering from microfracture surgery and has a goal of playing at some point this season.

Spencer
Spencer, who underwent the procedure last year, said he hopes to return by the end of training camp. If that’s the case, Spencer most likely will begin training camp on the physically unable to perform list. This news is not a surprise, given the difficultly to return from such a surgery.

Team doctors have given Spencer a timetable on when he can return. But Spencer won’t reveal it, instead he’s just focusing on his rehab.

“This injury it’s really uncommon, you rarely see guys coming back from it,” Spencer said. “So, I’m really not looking at any type of timetable. I’m just on my body schedule; where my body is, that’s where I am.”

The Cowboys have had two players, Al Johnson and Kevin Hardy, return from microfracture surgery. New Orleans Saints wide receiver Marques Colston had the procedure in 2009 and Detroit Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus got it done in 2010.

And each returned to the field from their injuries.

Washington Redskins defensive tackle Stephen Bowen underwent microfracture surgery and hopes to return this season.

“There’s guys who come back and other guys who struggle,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “It’s certainly not an impossibility. Sometimes it just takes longer than an ACL or something like that.”

Spencer's recovery had him lay in bed for 15 to 16 hours a day to immobilize the leg, all while his wife was pregnant with their first child.

Once he was able to move around, Spencer needed two crutches for four-to-five months.

Now he’s able to walk on his own, but can’t put too much pressure on his knee during the rehab process.

It’s a slow moving rehab that has had very little setbacks. Spencer has undergone four MRIs since the surgery to make sure his knee is stable.

Which it is. But for how long is the question.

“I have to listen to my body,” Spencer said. “I’ve gotten to where I’m listening to my body in rehabbing and doing the things at the pace of my body. Just try to do that and be as patient as possible. That’s one of the biggest things with the surgery (that) I’ve read (is) just being patient and I’m not pushing it pass that.”
IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys entered 2014 knowing they had to drastically improve their defensive line.

A better defensive line means a better Cowboys defense.

Garrett
Garrett
"This defensive scheme has been at its best when they’ve had good defensive lines," coach Jason Garrett said. "Last year we felt the effects of the injuries we had. We were decimated up there, and it affected how we played defense all the way back through the linebackers and the secondary, and felt like we had to address it and get it right.”

The Cowboys played 20 different defensive linemen in 2013. Some of them practiced for the first time on a Wednesday and played on a Sunday. The defense never received a down from Tyrone Crawford and Jeremiah "Jay" Ratliff. They received 34 snaps from Anthony Spencer. DeMarcus Ware missed the first three games of his career and had just six sacks. Jason Hatcher, who led the Cowboys with 11 sacks, missed one game.

Ware was cut and has signed with the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys made no real effort to keep Hatcher, who joined the Washington Redskins.

After the draft and college free agency, the Cowboys have 17 defensive linemen on the roster, and they might cut that number down soon. Last year, they did not draft a defensive lineman or add one as an undrafted free agent. Call this a market correction, if you want.

They signed Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Henry Melton in free agency. They re-signed Spencer to a one-year deal. They gave up their third-round pick to draft Demarcus Lawrence in the second round. In the seventh round, they added Ben Gardner and Ken Bishop.

“The obvious is the obvious,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “We were trying to emphasize defense in terms of numbers. We think that one of the ways to mitigate some of the big challenge that we have in our defensive front is numbers. Actual numbers on the field.”

Melton
The Cowboys love what George Selvie, a training camp pickup last summer, did in 2013 (seven sacks). They think he’ll be better if he plays fewer snaps. They love what Nick Hayden did as a starter in 2013, but they think he’ll be better if he plays fewer snaps.

While the Cowboys have thrown numbers at the D-line, they have not thrown cost. Melton carries the biggest cap number at $1.734 million.

But are the Cowboys better on the line? Spencer and Melton are not guaranteed to be ready for the start of training camp; both are recovering from knee injuries. McClain and Mincey have been complementary players. Selvie has to prove he is more than a one-year wonder. Crawford is coming off a torn Achilles. Lawrence will be making a big adjustment to the NFL.

A year ago at this time, on paper, Jones believed the Cowboys were stocked to make the switch to the 4-3. Then the season happened and the Cowboys were “a team that just flat was bankrupt in the defensive line last year,” Jones said. "We’re much better than what we played with."

Now, at least the Cowboys have given defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli options.

“We certainly know that is Rod’s goal, having those players biting at each other’s heels, fighting and competing," Jones said. "Our plan is to get numbers on the field.”
IRVING, Texas -- With the Dallas Cowboys giving up the 47th and 78th picks in order to move up to take Demarcus Lawrence with the 34th pick, fans will forever be interested in how Trent Murphy and Spencer Long turn out for the Washington Redskins.

The Redskins took Murphy, a defensive end/outside linebacker, in the second round and Long, a guard, in the third with the picks they acquired from the Cowboys.

The Cowboys acknowledged they might have given up too much to get Lawrence, but the need for a pass rusher was too great.

It was so great that they were willing to make a deal with an NFC East foe. This was the fifth time the Cowboys have made a trade with the Redskins. The last time they made a trade this high in the draft with a division foe came in 2010 when they picked Sean Lee with the 55th pick. In 2007, they made a move into the first round to take Anthony Spencer with the Eagles' top pick.

The Cowboys were not deterred in giving a division foe more picks.

"That can cut both ways and if you have confidence in what you're doing, then you feel like you are helping yourself through your division opponent," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "It depends on how you feel about the deal. Obviously you don't do it unless you think you are getting something more than you are giving up."
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IRVING, Texas -- The pick: Demarcus Lawrence, defensive end, Boise State


My take: With many people upset the Dallas Cowboys did not help their defense in the first round Thursday, they made sure they got their guy in the second round by trading up with the Washington Redskins, of all teams.

Lawrence is a pure right defensive end. He had 20 sacks in two seasons at Boise State and he had 20.5 tackles for loss last season. With the loss of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys needed a right defensive end. They just turned to another Demarcus. Lawrence has speed. He has long arms. He can get around the edge, and he should benefit greatly from the coaching of Rod Marinelli.

Before adding Lawrence the Cowboys had plenty of left defensive end types in George Selvie, Anthony Spencer, Jeremy Mincey and Tyrone Crawford.

Lawrence had three separate one-game suspensions, but the Cowboys met with him at Valley Ranch before the draft and were able to get a handle on him.

Love the Broncos: In 2008, the Cowboys drafted Orlando Scandrick out of Boise State in the fifth round. In 2012, they drafted Crawford in the third round out of Boise State. Now they have gone with Lawrence.

There is a chip-on-the-shoulder type attitude that most Boise State players carry and the Cowboys like that, especially in Scandrick. If there has been a complaint about the Cowboys' defense with Ware as the best player it is that it has been too nice. Lawrence will bring attitude.

What’s next: By giving up their second-round (No. 47) and third-round picks (No. 78), the Cowboys are done until Saturday unless they trade back into the third. The Cowboys have eight picks Saturday with six coming in the seventh round.

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