NFC East: henry melton

As we do after every Dallas Cowboys game, we provide you with our weekly Upon Further Review.

Williams
Williams
1. With defenses taking wide receiver Dez Bryant out of games it was supposed to open things up for fellow wideout Terrance Williams. Williams finished with just two catches for 38 yards in the Cowboys' loss to the Eagles on Thursday. Williams has just five catches the past four weeks. Sophomore slump? Maybe. Quarterback Tony Romo was off on a few of his throws on Thanksgiving Day and Williams didn't help him out on a sideline pass that was intercepted but negated by a penalty. At times the Cowboys will make sure they get the ball into Bryant's hands because he's the No. 1 receiver on the team. Likewise for tight end Jason Witten, who's the No. 1A target for Romo. Should the Cowboys get Williams involved more? Sometimes the No. 2 receiver gets the leftovers in an offense especially with dynamic threats such as Witten and Bryant on the field. But Williams, who did play with a fractured finger, should be more productive.

2. Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan said earlier this week he wasn't that impressed with the Cowboys' offensive line. The line is one of the strengths of the team given it's got three first-round picks and a veteran presence in right tackle Doug Free. The line struggled on Thursday. Romo was sacked four times, though one time he just went down to avoid a hit, and was hurried five times. The run game produced 93 yards, the second-lowest output of the season. Romo did have time to complete some throws yet DeMarco Murray's longest run was nine yards. He's produced at least one 10-yard carry in every game this season. Playing two games in five days could have had an effect or maybe Logan is right. We doubt it because the NFL is a game of matchups and the Eagles are probably just a matchup problem for the Cowboys.

3. Speaking of disappearing acts, where has defensive tackle Henry Melton been? He's been credited with zero tackles the past two weeks. He had a four-week stretch in which he had 2.5 sacks and four quarterback pressures with just one tackle. Now, Tyrone Crawford plays that three-technique position that was slated for Melton and is just a better player right now. Considering the contract Melton signed -- $2.25 million in total compensation for 2014 in a deal that could jump to $29 million over the next four seasons -- you expect better. The Cowboys can get out of the deal by releasing Melton before the first day of the 2015 league year which would force them to have $750,000 in dead money for 2015. Melton's play leaves many questions. Over the next four weeks, he's playing for his future with the Cowboys.
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Brandon Carr sat at his locker trying to find the words to describe his feelings. The Dallas Cowboys' cornerback was in full uniform as his teammates were pulling theirs off. He was searching for answers.

"Frustrated, but a little adversity is nothing we haven't been through before," Carr said after the Cowboys' 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. "We have to pick our heads up. We got a business trip coming up (to London to take on Jacksonville) and it's an opportunity to end this sked."

The Cowboys' defense has struggled during this two-game losing streak. On Sunday, Arizona was a perfect four-for-four in the red zone, and all this from a team that entered Week 9 with the NFL's second-worst red zone percentage at 42.1 percent.

There were other questions about the Cowboys' defense such as its failure to get opposing offenses off the field on third down. Arizona converted 60 percent of its third-down plays, the second-highest against the Cowboys' defense this season.

Melton
Quarterback Carson Palmer got passes off with defenders at his feet, inches from the Cowboys pulling him down in the back and basically on his face. Palmer completed 22 of 34 passes for 249 yards with three touchdowns. Yes, he was sacked three times, twice by Henry Melton, who has four the past two weeks, and the defense was credited with nine quarterback hurries.

"We were out there a lot," Melton said. "I don't know the play count, it seemed like a lot. We're not the only defense that plays a lot of snaps in game, but once you're out there you got to get it done."

The Cowboys' defense was on the field for 65 plays, the third most this season. Arizona controlled the clock with an efficient run game, 102 yards, and Palmer's passing to eat up 31:28. That's not even close to Washington's time of possession last week of 38:12.

With the Cowboys using a rotation of linemen, which also included the return of rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, guys should be fresher.

Larry Fitzgerald, one of the great receivers of his generation, had five catches for 70 yards, which included a 31-yard reception off a pick-play against Orlando Scandrick.

Palmer completed passes to eight different players and out of 29 carries, the run game averaged 3.5 yards.

"We ain't do enough to win," Scandrick said. "It's a good football team over there. They do a lot of stuff; a veteran quarterback, a veteran receiver, arguably a Hall of Fame receiver, they made plays."

The Cowboys lost starting middle linebacker Rolando McClain and starting defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford to knee injuries in the fourth quarter, and the injuries raises concerns about their availability for London.

Scandrick
The Cowboys' defense has always been this mysterious deal since the start of the season because the expectations were low. Losing DeMarcus Ware and the lack of confidence in the secondary were the main reasons and nobody knew where the pass rush was coming from.

We've seen improved play from Melton the past two weeks, but we need to see more from other players. Rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was pretty active in his first game of the season, producing two tackles and almost sacking Palmer.

Yet, the common theme around here was frustration and a lack of progress. It's like the Cowboys have been stagnated after their 6-1 start.

"We're frustrated but we got 24 hours to be frustrated and stop the ceiling from falling," Scandrick said. "We need to go over the London and get a W. We need a win in the worst way."
IRVING, Texas -- Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton enters Sunday's game against Arizona coming off one of his best games of the season.

Melton had two sacks, three tackles for loss and was credited with two quarterback hurries in Monday's overtime loss to Washington. Melton, who plays defensive tackle, was moved to defensive end on several plays against the Redskins to create some mismatches.

Melton
"It felt pretty good and I was moving around a little bit to trying to give me better looks and I was in position to make some plays," Melton said. "It felt good. It was something we looked at and said we were going to try and do in the game. I did it in practice a little bit and it transferred a little bit to the game."

This isn't the first time Melton was moved to end during a game. When Melton played for the Chicago Bears, then-defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, moved him around the defensive line to maximize his potential.

Melton was signed to become a starter at defensive tackle, but he's coming off the bench behind Tyrone Crawford. Melton was coming along slowly after his recovery from a torn ACL yet he's generating more pressures the past few weeks.

In addition to his two sacks, the first multi-sack game since the 2012 season opener, Melton has five quarterback pressures the last three weeks. If his health continues to improve the Cowboys expect him to have a bigger impact.

"It's an ongoing process," Melton said. "We'll see keeping my reps up and still working through it week-to-week. It felt pretty good."
IRVING, Texas -- Now that the Dallas Cowboys have developed one of the NFL's best offensive lines, coach Jason Garrett and the front office have started the same process with the defensive line.

In many ways, they are using the same approach they did to re-shape their offensive line.

Since the start of the 2013 season, the Cowboys have released Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware, and let Jason Hatcher leave via free agency. Of the 11 defensive linemen on the roster, eight joined the Cowboys this season.

McClain
Melton
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (second round), who broke his leg in training camp and should return this month, and Ken Bishop (seventh round) were draft picks. Henry Melton, who missed the last 13 games last season with a torn ACL, signed a one-year deal with a club option for three years and was the only big-dollar defensive player they acquired.

They also signed free agents Jeremy Mincey (30), Terrell McClain (26) and Amobi Okoye (27), who is eligible to come off the non-football illness list for Week 7 before training camp. Mincey signed a two-year deal for $3 million, McClain signed a three-year deal for $3.05 million, and Okoye received a two-year deal worth $1.6 million.

They added Jack Crawford (26) after the Oakland Raiders released him on the final cut, and traded a late-round draft pick to Tennessee for Lavar Edwards (24) the same weekend.

"You’re always trying to bring good players in," Garrett said. "We had some big decisions to make last year from an organizational and salary-cap structure. Those are hard decisions when guys have been good players and you have to move on from them.

"I think we’ve done a good job, both in the draft with young players, but also with some veteran players and the guys already on the team to create that competition and challenge those guys."

The Cowboys have used an eight-man defensive line rotation during their first four games, which means three players sit each week. It wasn’t that tough the first couple of weeks, because the Cowboys had one or two defensive linemen who couldn’t play because of injury.

That is not the case this week, when just about everyone is healthy enough to play.

"We have an eight-man rotation. Who are going to be the eight? It’s up for debate every week," Garrett said. "You want guys to have to earn those spots. You have to earn it on Sunday, and you have to earn the right to dress on Sunday."
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton was listed as limited on the Wednesday practice report.

Last week, Melton (hamstring) didn't practice until Friday and was listed as questionable going into the game against the New Orleans Saints. Melton did play against the Saints.

Defensive end Anthony Spencer (knee), who made his season debut last week, was limited.

Tony Romo (back) and Bruce Carter (thigh) didn't practice on Wednesday. Romo is expected to practice this week and play in Sunday's game against Houston. Carter most likely won't play.

Linebacker Rolando McClain (groin) and wide receiver Dez Bryant (shoulder) were full participants on Wednesday.
Henry Melton, the Dallas Cowboys' key offseason defensive acquisition, said he’s ready for the season opener against San Francisco after not playing in the preseason.

Melton
Melton said his knee and his groin, which he tweaked during training camp, are fine and he expects to start Sunday against the 49ers. Melton said he’s not sure how much he will play against San Francisco but won’t be opposed to the coaching staff putting him on a play limit.

“I’m just going to go with the flow,” Melton said. “If they want to hold me to a certain amount of plays, I’m just going to listen to them.”

For the Cowboys to have any chance of having a solid defense this season, they need Melton to play well.

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The 2012 Pro Bowl defensive tackle is capable of being disruptive against the run with his ability to penetrate, while also providing a good pass rush and collapsing the middle of the pocket.

That's especially important against a physical offense like San Francisco, which prefers to use its running game to control the game. Last season, the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in rushing attempts (505) and yards per game (137.6) and fourth with 18 touchdowns.

“The biggest thing for (Melton),” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said, “is to get out there and practice and go against a live opponent. He was able to do some of that today.”
FRISCO, Texas -- Before the Dallas Cowboys' brass left for Miami, they updated the media on a few injured players.

  • Team executive vice president Stephen Jones said defensive tackle Henry Melton (groin) will not play in the third preseason game on Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins. Jones said the goal is to get most, if not all of the injured players ready for the regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.

  • Middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who left Tuesday's practice with cramping and missed the next day with soreness, is expected to play against the Dolphins.

    "When you sit out for a year, and he didn't really get back into it full bore, until a couple of weeks before camp, so its going to take some time," Jones said.

  • Team officials haven't decided on cornerback Morris Claiborne's status for the Dolphins game as he's still recovering from a shoulder injury.


    Claiborne, a projected starter with Orlando Scandrick suspended the first four games, hasn't played in any preseason games because of health issues.

    Jones said he's not worried about Claiborne's long-term durability given his history of health problems.

    "Not really, I think at the end of the day he's played in a lot of games for us," Jones said. "And I think he'll do well out there, obviously you have to be conservative with your players now. The injury situation not only around here but around the league. We'll let this play out and I think he'll be ready for the 49ers."
  • 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 on Day 6 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

    Johnson
    1. Matt Johnson is never going to play for the Dallas Cowboys.

    He has yet another hamstring injury -- this is three training camps in a row -- and he’s expected to miss at least a week. That said, who among us will be shocked if he misses more than that.

    The Cowboys have liked Johnson’s potential so much that they’ve kept him on the roster, even though the former fourth-round pick has never appeared in a game in his first two seasons.

    He’s been good in practice, according to coaches and teammates, but will that be enough?

    It’s hard to believe they would keep him for another year, which means paying him for a third year, if he can’t stay healthy and compete for a job. The competition at safety is taut. Every day he misses diminishes his slim odds of making the team.

    Lee
    2. Sean Lee is the kind of player you hope has success because he’s the epitome of what coaches want in a player and what players want in a teammate.

    Yes, he’s been hurt frequently. Too frequently. And the reality is the Cowboys can’t really depend on him because he hasn’t shown an ability to stay on the field.

    But his injuries are the result of bad luck -- not poor conditioning or training -- and you can tell he’s miserable about the missed time. He doesn’t have to be at training camp.

    He could be rehabbing in Dallas, but he wants to be around his teammates. He’s sitting in on meetings and film sessions. He’s doing everything the other linebackers are doing except playing.

    Not many other players would do that.

    Melton
    3. Henry Melton's knee is essentially fine from a structural perspective. Any athlete who’s had a knee injury will tell you the most difficult part of recovery is trusting the knee again.

    That’s why the preseason games will be so important to Melton, especially as an interior lineman. He must get used to players falling on his legs or banging into them.

    He must get used to the game’s physicality, and he must become adept again at maintaining his balance and staying on his feet when guys around him are falling down.

    When he does -- no matter how long it takes -- that’s when he’ll return to being a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle.

    Key Number: 71

    The Cowboys gave up 71 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season. No team allowed more.

    Super Bowl champion Seattle allowed 30. The 12 playoff teams yielded an average of 51.

    The Cowboys have no chance to win if they don’t stop the big plays. It makes it too easy for the offense. Improved safety play will help, but the Cowboys must figure out how to rush the passer and remove quarterbacks from their comfort zone.

    Player to Watch: Cole Beasley

    This is the first time Cole Beasley has ever entered training camp with outside expectations.

    He seems ready to meet them.

    He caught 39 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns last season. More important, he earned Tony Romo's trust.

    On third down, he caught 14 of the 18 passes directed toward him for 146 yards, 11 first downs and a touchdown. When the Cowboys use Beasley in the slot on third downs along with Jason Witten at tight end, it gives Romo a pair of players with good hands who can work underneath and make first downs.

    Beasley played only 247 snaps last year. Miles Austin, who had 541 snaps, is gone. Look for Beasley to gobble up a bunch of Austin’s playing time, which means he could easily catch 60 passes this season.
    OXNARD, Calif. -- Three thoughts on Day 4 of Dallas Cowboys' training camp:

    1) It was one play, just about as meaningless as can be, considering it was the first day players wore pads, but Morris Claiborne wanted to establish a tone.

    Claiborne
    First, he locked down Terrance Williams, forcing an incompletion. Then he jumped up and started woofing. Eventually, the players were separated.

    It was the first time since he arrived that we’ve seen that type of feistiness from Claiborne.

    Hey, whatever it takes. He’s been the epitome of a bust his first two seasons, allowing 70 completions in 117 attempts with only two interceptions and 13 pass deflections.

    For a guy who was supposed to be the best defensive player in the 2012 draft that’s not nearly good enough.

    Jason Garrett said he’s improved significantly during the offseason. It’s time for him to take it to the field.

    Better secondary play is the fastest way for this defense to improve, since their pass rush remains suspect.

    Smith
    2) The Cowboys are moving closer to a long-term agreement with left tackle Tyron Smith, who’s going to deserve every nickel of whatever he gets.

    Smith is man-handling the defensive ends on this roster, the way DeMarcus Ware used to destroy tackles, including Smith, during training camp.

    Smith is only 23, so don’t be surprised if he signs a deal that’s nine or 10 years long. When he does, it’ll be interesting to see if Dez Bryant can continue to ignore his contract situation and play well.

    After all, the club has already taken care of Sean Lee, who was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft. Bryant was the Cowboys’ first-round pick.

    3) Kyle Wilber spent his first two seasons bouncing around between outside linebacker in the 3-4 and weakside defensive end.

    Injuries last season created some playing time for him at strongside linebacker and the Cowboys suddenly found a player.

    Wilber has the strength to hold the edge and consistently force running plays inside, in part because of the time he spent at defensive end, and he made several important plays for the Cowboys last season.

    He finished the season with 44 tackles and two sacks, while starting six games.

    34

    The Cowboys were tied for 25th in the NFL with 34 sacks. Only five teams had fewer.

    Their sack total was 10 fewer than the average 2013 playoff team.

    Teams that don’t get many sacks often say they’re overrated. Well, they’re not. Pressure is good, but sacks are a momentum-changer and usually result in a punt at the end of the drive.

    You must rush the passer and put quarterbacks under duress, or it’s hard to force turnovers and win games.

    The Cowboys are counting on defensive Henry Melton, who missed the last 13 games with a torn ACL, to provide pressure up the middle. He has been a terrific pass-rusher, and they need him to command double teams to help other players get to the quarterback.

    Player to Watch: Gavin Escobar

    The Cowboys wasted Escobar’s rookie season. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson.

    It’s dumb to ask a tight end who should excel at working from the slot and creating mismatches with his size to be the same type of player as Jason Witten.

    Escobar can help this team by making plays downfield and giving Tony Romo one more vertical threat.

    He caught nine passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. He can be a playmaker, if Scott Linehan gives him a chance to do it. If not, he’ll be a wasted pick.

    Dallas Cowboys' projected roster

    July, 18, 2014
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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
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    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.

    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."
    There isn’t a rush right now to get Cowboys defensive tackle Henry Melton on the field.

    Melton
    Training camp isn’t tomorrow and the first practice doesn’t begin until July 24.

    The season won’t sneak up on anybody so while Melton does his rehab from a torn ACL, everything is on schedule.

    Melton said his knee is doing fine and he expects to be ready for that first practice in late July.

    “I think you’ve got to be smart about guys like that,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “Obviously Henry’s a pro. He’s been to the Pro Bowl. He knows how to play the game. He’s also coming off a significant injury. I think everything our doctors say is he’s right on time.”

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    Melton reached the Pro Bowl in 2012 after compiling six sacks, third most in the NFL for defensive linemen, and causing all sorts of havoc. In a two-year stretch, Melton had 13 sacks in 29 games. Only Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins (20 sacks in 32 games) had more.

    The Cowboys, who will miss DeMarcus Ware (released and signed with Denver) and Jason Hatcher (free agent who signed with Washington), need a pass-rush presence.

    Melton won’t be alone. George Selvie, Nick Hayden, DeMarcus Lawrence among others will contribute to the cause.

    However, the Cowboys are looking for the Melton who reached the Pro Bowl in 2012.

    After that Pro Bowl season, the expectations increased and he participated in just three games last season before the injury.

    How he returns will dictate a lot for the Cowboys' defense and Melton’s future.

    “Every week I get stronger and better,” Melton said. “We’re just focusing on getting my knee as strong as possible and aiming for preseason and all that. I feel like I could go out there and do some things during these OTAs. It’s something we talked about before. [But] we’re going to focus on training camp and get ready for the season.”

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