NFL Nation: morris claiborne

IRVING, Texas -- So far Mel Kiper Jr. has followed the Dallas Cowboys' draft needs in his mock drafts.

In his first two mocks, he offered up Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round. In his third, he went with Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. In his Grade A mock, he went with Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

In Kiper's Mock draft 4.0 , he has gone away from the defensive side of the ball.


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IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have signed three defensive players in free agency, but that does not mean they have fixed the woes on that side of the ball in the offseason.

Among the national visitors to the Cowboys next week for pre-draft visits are UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, Boise State defensive end Demarcus Lawrence and Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, according to sources.

Teams are allowed 30 national visitors leading up to the draft. They do not work out, but they meet with coaches and scouts and are put to the test mentally. The Cowboys can have an unlimited number of players work out at their Dallas day session on April 17 that includes players from local colleges or who played high school football in the area.

Donald has been linked to the Cowboys since an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl in January. He met with coaches at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February and will come to Valley Ranch as well. Donald might be the perfect fit as a 3-technique in Rod Marinelli’s defense.

The Cowboys signed Henry Melton as a free agent, but it does not take them out of the bidding for Donald, who had 11 sacks and 28.5 tackles last season. Melton’s contract is essentially a one-year deal. If he does not perform at a high level, the Cowboys can walk away from the final three years of the contract by not exercising the option.

Barr had 23.5 sacks in his last two years at UCLA and was a first-team All-Pac-12 pick. He played mostly linebacker, but his ability to rush the passer has some teams wondering if he can be a full-time defensive end. It is possible he could play strongside linebacker and move to defensive end in passing situations.

Shazier has phenomenal athleticism and can cover tight ends and running backs. With Bruce Carter in the final year of his deal, Shazier could provide excellent insurance or perhaps force Carter to move to the strongside linebacker spot. Shazier had 143 tackles last year for Ohio State and 44.5 tackles for loss in his career.

Lawrence led the Mountain West with 10.5 sacks in 2013 and had 20.5 tackles for loss. At 6-foot-3, 251 pounds, he is more of a defensive end than outside linebacker with long arms and deceptive strength.

Ward is one of the top safeties in the draft and could be a first-round pick. He had 95 tackles, seven interceptions and 10 pass deflections last season, but he is also coming off foot surgery. The Cowboys have not looked at the veteran safety market in free agency for somebody to play alongside Barry Church. They have said they like what they have in last year’s third-rounder, J.J. Wilcox, as well as Jeff Heath and Matt Johnson, who has yet to play in his first two years because of injuries.

In recent history, the Cowboys have shown a preference for selecting players who visited Valley Ranch before the draft. Last year, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, Wilcox, B.W. Webb and Joseph Randle were among the pre-draft visitors they selected. Since 2005, the only top picks not to visit the Cowboys before the draft were DeMarcus Ware (2005) and Morris Claiborne (2012).
IRVING, Texas – For a variety of reasons the Dallas Cowboys need their cornerback trio of Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne to play better in 2014.

One reason is the addition of DeSean Jackson to the Washington Redskins.

We documented Jackson’s efforts against the Cowboys while with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s scored just one touchdown against the Cowboys and averaged 3.5 catches a game in the regular season.

Maybe things become a little different now that he is with the Redskins. He will have a first-time head coach in Jay Gruden, who loved to throw it when he was the offensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals. He has Robert Griffin III trying to recapture the magic of his rookie season. He has Pierre Garcon, who lit up the Cowboys, and free-agent pickup Andre Roberts.

Carr struggled badly with Garcon (11 catches, 144 yards) in the second meeting of the season last year at FedEx Field so much that Scandrick moved in late in the game when the defense made a stop. Roberts has played twice against the Cowboys with the Arizona Cardinals and has two 100-yard games.

He caught five passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinals’ 27-26 win in 2010 and six passes for 111 yards in the Cardinals’ 19-13 overtime win.

New defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to blend what Carr, Scandrick and Claiborne do well into the scheme better than last year’s coordinator, Monte Kiffin. Carr and Claiborne have to play better to give Marinelli options.
IRVING, Texas -- Earlier today my guy, Calvin Watkins, brought you a post that says the Dallas Cowboys are rebuilding.

I don’t want to say Calvin is wrong, but, well, um, well, I don’t agree with that premise.

Romo
It’s not a rebuild the Cowboys are going through. And if you want to call it a rebuilding job, what exactly are they rebuilding from? They have won one playoff game since 1996. Teams that rebuild at least go to conference title games or Super Bowls -- and win Super Bowls.

I just don’t think you rebuild when you have a franchise quarterback that will turn 34 in April and is only in the second year of a six-year extension.

What the Cowboys have done the last few years -- and I wrote about it -- is re-tool. The departures of DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin and Jason Hatcher are more evidence that the Cowboys are re-tooling. With Tony Romo, the Cowboys still need to win now. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said as much at the NFL scouting combine.

He doesn’t have time to wait three or four years to rebuild with Romo as his quarterback.

What the Cowboys are doing is changing their core. While Romo and Jason Witten are still the focal points of the team because of their play, status and production, the core of the team has moved on from guys like Ware, Jeremiah Ratliff, Austin, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Bradie James and Terence Newman in recent years to newer players.

The core now is Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Orlando Scandrick, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and Barry Church. They would love guys like Morris Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford and Gavin Escobar to join this list but they have not proven they can play yet.

The Cowboys have to maximize what they have left with Romo and Witten but not to the point where they are left in salary-cap shambles for when the “new guard” is in their prime.

Rebuilding, to me, is starting over. The Cowboys aren’t going to start over with Romo and Witten and they’re not exactly moving back to ground zero either.

What they are doing does not guarantee success or even something better than 8-8, but they are in the process of passing the torch, so to speak.
IRVING, Texas -- Bill Polian was a successful personnel man with the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts. He is now an ESPN Insider and has offered up a dos and don'ts list Insider when it comes to free agency.

Basically, Polian, who is among Jerry Jones' circle of trust outside Valley Ranch, subscribes to the theory that a free agent can be a useful tool if you spend wisely, but the economic risk almost always outweighs the on-field production.

Let's highlight a couple of Polian's positions from the Insider story.
2. Don't sign a player and change his techniques.
It is hard enough for players to adapt to a new team. For example, don't take a Tampa 2, 3-technique and expect him to become a Parcells/Belichick 3-4 DE. Those are totally different techniques, and players who have to make that type of adjustment don't make the transition well. Adapting and then trying to learn a new role on top of that adds complications that can ruin your investment. You could have a relatively brief window of return, so retraining shouldn't be a big part of it.
Cowboys' take: Dallas invested heavily in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency and the draft in 2012 and moved away from their supposed strengths -- man coverage -- to play mostly zone when they switched to Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. The Cowboys need to find a way to blend their coverages more to play to the strengths of Carr and Claiborne.
7. Don't pay a player above his grade.
Don't give A-money (or years) to a B-player, and so on down the line. As discussed at the start of this article, the free-agent market as a whole is almost always a losing investment. Just because another team is willing to give a player a certain contract doesn't mean he's worth that price to your team. There is no universal price for a player because every player has a different value to each team. You need to trust your internal valuations and proceed off those figures, not the market.
Cowboys' take: Let's stick with Carr again. The Cowboys overpaid for him (five years, $50 million) but that was the market for free-agent corners. The St. Louis Rams paid Cortland Finnegan the same amount and will cut him once the league year starts. At the time of the signing, the Cowboys were not criticized for signing Carr, who has not missed a game in his career and was young. But they have yet to see the on-field production for their off-field pay out.
11. Do beware of players whose production dramatically increases in their contract year.
If a player is lousy for three years and then spikes in Year 4 and becomes a world-beater, be careful. You're more likely to get the production from those first three seasons, but you'll be paying for the results of the fourth. It's not a knock on the effort of the first three years, it's a trust in the bigger sample size.
Cowboys' take: It's not that Jason Hatcher was lousy, but he never produced more than 4.5 sacks in a season before 2013. Polian also has a 'don't pay age' axiom, which could affect Hatcher, who turns 32 in July, but could teams be worried about his 11-sack spike in a contract year?
DeMarcus WareMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsIt might be time for the Cowboys to let aging defensive end DeMarcus Ware go.

The Dallas Cowboys have a chance to start over.

It’s not an ideal situation, but in the big picture, this is the perfect time.

The Cowboys are talking with Pat Dye, the agent for defensive end DeMarcus Ware, about a reduction in salary.

SportsNation

Should DeMarcus Ware take a pay cut?

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    87%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,027)

Ware has been the Cowboys’ best defensive player for roughly seven consecutive seasons. But last year was different. Ware battled elbow, back, quad and a stinger in 2013.

His health betrayed him and he finished with just six sacks in the 2013 season. You could say health was the reason for his declining play or that he’s just getting old.

The reality is Ware is still a good player, not a player worth taking $16 million of your salary cap, but maybe half that.

The Cowboys have basically told him to take a pay cut or find another team.

I don’t believe they should keep him though because although Ware is still a productive player, if the team is trying to forge ahead and stop the mediocrity of the franchise, then letting him go is the best thing possible.

Rebuild.

If Ware is off the books, it saves $7.4 million.

On June 1, you get another $5.5 million in savings when your rid yourself of Miles Austin’s contract.

That’s close to $13 million in savings from two veteran players who are battling health issues as they move to the backstage of their careers. Sure some other NFL team will sign them, that’s life in the NFL.

The Cowboys need to get younger, like yesterday. If Jason Garrett wants a contract extension he should tell Jerry Jones, let’s get younger.

It’s time to end the way the franchise has kept players around for too long and move toward the future. It’s time for the Cowboys to draft the best players on their board and clean up the communication mess of the last few years in the war room.

(Read full post)

IRVING, Texas -- As Jerry Jones spoke on his bus from the NFL scouting combine recently, you could hear the Dallas Cowboys' owner and general manager go through a checklist when talking about draft needs.

He said drafting a corner “could be stacking it up,” too much with Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Morris Claiborne. He said tight end would not be a position of need with Jason Witten and Gavin Escobar. He said “not necessarily” wide receiver, either. The Cowboys like DeMarco Murray a lot, but “that doesn’t mean we won’t bring in another potentially very competitive running back in at all.” He said a strongside linebacker would not be much of a need because of its lack of importance in the 4-3. He mentioned liking what they have at safety but would not rule out a draft pick.

What does it all mean in early March? Not much.

The question was about drafting solely defensive players considering how much help the Cowboys need on that side of the ball.

“We’ve got to be careful foregoing a really top offensive lineman,” Jones said. “I’d head scratch about that, all things equal, same quality.”

The follow-up question was specifically about defensive line help.

“It’s certainly where we were almost bankrupt last year in terms of what we had personnel wise,” Jones said. “As you’ve noted and I’ve mentioned, I thought that was our strength going into the season. And by the way, I was up here talking to Monte Kiffin earlier and Monte was talking about how [Anthony] Spencer, how we were doing with [Jay] Ratliff not out there, but how well we were playing at Oxnard in that defensive front. That was without Tyrone Crawford, who got hurt the first day. Still we were creating some havoc out there and we, of course, really lost that. But that is certainly an area of need. I’m not being evasive, but don’t discount a good offensive lineman that is high on your board.”

That was twice Jones mentioned an offensive lineman. The Cowboys have hit on their past two first-round picks on the offensive line in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick after not previously drafting one in the first round in the Jones era.

Just something to note.
We've seen Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne for two seasons now.

He's participated in 25 of 32 available games. Claiborne has started 22 of those games but is mainly the third corner on his team behind Orlando Scandrick. The Cowboys moved up in the draft and selected Claiborne with the sixth overall selection in 2012 and all they have is two interceptions, 14 pass breakups and 17 weeks spent on the injury report spanning two seasons.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
AP Photo/James D. SmithA healthy Morris Claiborne deserves a third season with the Cowboys to prove he can play.
Is it time to view Claiborne a little differently now?

Maybe the Cowboys should explore trading him?

Is it so easy to give up on Claiborne, whom the Cowboys said graded out with the same skill set as Deion Sanders when he came out of college? Claiborne has been a major disappointment in his two seasons. You expected more from him considering where some of the scouts had him ranked and where he was drafted.

Claiborne shouldn't be the third corner on this team, but it's fair to say Scandrick is just better. And now with the Cowboys trying to upgrade a poor defense, a look at the current personnel is needed.

The bold move would result in the Cowboys trading Claiborne for maybe a third-round pick. NFL teams aren't going to give up anything higher than that, considering Claiborne's health issues and a lack of play-making ability in his first two seasons.

A sensible move is to keep him and think he'll perform better in 2014 with a clearer mind and healthier body.

Last season, Claiborne was an emotional mess. While rehabbing from a hamstring injury, Claiborne's father passed away suddenly. And just days after losing his father, he became a father himself to a baby girl.

Dealing with the life of the NFL and the realities of the world can be difficult to do sometimes, especially for a player in his early 20s. The Cowboys can give Claiborne a pass for roughly the last month of the 2013 season due to his mental state. Claiborne wanted to play, but his body and personal issues prevented that for a time.

When you look at the other corners drafted in 2012, there's no need to give up on them, though you must also question whether some of these selections are worth it.

Stephon Gilmore was the 10th pick of the draft by Buffalo and in 27 games he's got three interceptions and 26 pass breakups. Dre Kirkpatrick, who has spent 17 weeks on the injury report in two seasons, has just one interception for Cincinnati.

Janoris Jenkins, the 39th pick overall by Green Bay in the second round, had five interceptions in 2012 and returned three picks for touchdowns. He's shown some durability playing in 31 games.

It's easy to focus on Claiborne and say he's come up short of expectations and you would be fair in saying that. Trading him could be an option for the Cowboys if they believe someone is willing to give them a third-round pick.

However, giving Claiborne a chance to produce in his third season is the wise move, it just needs to happen.
IRVING, Texas -- On Sunday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said stripping down the team and going through a complete overhaul is impossible in large part because of the salary cap.

If you look at the roster, however, the Cowboys have undergone a slow-rebuild -- if not a one-year overhaul -- the past few years with the idea that they can still make the playoffs, which would fall into Jones’ “compete for a Super Bowl,” credo by definition.

Ware
Spencer
The 8-8 finishes the past three seasons have prevented the Cowboys from making the playoffs, but the roster overhaul has happened and the cleaning up of the cap, as Stephen Jones likes to call it, is in midstream.

The offensive line has been remade since 2011 with only Doug Free remaining. They have invested in three younger cornerbacks, although they have yet to see the payoff in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. They have two younger receivers to build around in Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams.

The rebuilding of the defensive line has to start this offseason, especially if DeMarcus Ware does not return.

The Cowboys have gotten younger. They have seven players under contract for 2014 that will be 30 or older by the time the season starts. Only Tony Romo, Free, Jason Witten and L.P. Ladouceur are guaranteed to be around this season. There are cap questions around Ware and receiver Miles Austin, and quarterback Kyle Orton has to decide whether he wants to continue to play.

Free agent defensive linemen Jason Hatcher (32) and Anthony Spencer (30), and guard Brian Waters (37) will be allowed to test the market and sign elsewhere.

The Cowboys have 27 players signed past 2014 who finished the year on the 53-man roster in 2013. Only 10 have significant financial commitments, including Austin and Ware, who could be gone before this coming season. Players such as Carr and Mackenzy Bernadeau could be part of a recycle in 2015.

Bryant and Tyron Smith stand to see steep pay increases over the next 12-18 months, with their contracts expiring over the next two seasons. Perhaps the same could happen with running back DeMarco Murray, who is in the final year of his deal.

Rebuilding is not a word Jones will use. Reloading does not apply to a team that has one playoff win since 1996.

Maybe retooling is the more apt description.

But will that guarantee anything more than 8-8?
INDIANAPOLIS -- Rod Marinelli has been through a defensive rebuilding job before. Maybe not as severe as he has to do with the Dallas Cowboys, but a rebuild nonetheless.

In 2009, Marinelli joined the Chicago Bears as defensive line coach. The Bears finished 17th in total defense, 13th against the pass, 23rd against the rush and 21st in points allowed.

In 2010 Marinelli became the defensive coordinator and the Bears finished ninth in total defense, 20th against the pass, second against the rush and fourth in points allowed.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
AP Photo/James D. SmithDefensive coordinator Rod Marinelli hopes Dallas adds pieces to its front seven this offseason.
The Cowboys were 32nd in yards, 30th against the pass, 27th against the rush and 26th in points allowed.

Monte Kiffin was moved to assistant head coach/defense and Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator last month.

“We’ve kind of got things in place for the most part,” Marinelli said from the NFL scouting combine “Now you’ve just got to make some corrections, add some people and go from there.”

The Bears started four different defensive linemen from 2009 to 2010, and added Julius Peppers as a free agent. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher returned to the lineup from a wrist injury after playing in just one game in 2009. Free-agent pickups Tim Jennings and Chris Harris solidified the secondary.

Chicago went from a 7-9 record to an 11-5 finish.

Despite their defensive woes in 2013, the Cowboys finished 8-8, losing their third straight winner-take-all NFC East championship game in Week 17 to miss the playoffs.

To Marinelli, there is no mystery to his success.

“With me, I think it’s just going back to being really fundamentally sound,” he said. “That’s kind of always been my base. Just getting guys to do things right and coach these guys extremely hard ... Being really detailed in what you’re doing, being exact. Again just being with these guys is going to help, and I think adding some pieces is going to help.”

The Cowboys will be hard-pressed to add significant pieces in free agency with their salary-cap situation. The futures of Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware are in question. A healthy Sean Lee will help. So would a healthy Morris Claiborne. Improvement from Bruce Carter and Brandon Carr is a must. They also must find players in the early rounds of the draft that can contribute.

Where does Marinelli want to see the most help?

“Your front seven,” he said. “You always look at it. You’ve always got to look at the front seven. That kind of drives the whole thing for us. So hopefully we’ll be adding pieces, and I like some of the guys that were injured last year, (Tyrone) Crawford, Ben Bass. Some of these other guys I’m looking forward to seeing.”

Marinelli will continue to coach the defensive line, but he said Leon Lett and Ben Bloom will alleviate some of the workload. It’s how he operated in Chicago as well.

“The key is the foundation,” Marinelli said. "If you can get that going, you get yourself a foundation and you build off that. Get the right pieces, the right couple of guys and things will jump quick.”

That’s the Cowboys' hope.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne will not miss any of the offseason program because of surgeries to his left shoulder and finger, according to a source.

Claiborne
Claiborne hurt his shoulder in the season opener but did not miss a game, wearing a harness for several weeks. He missed six games with a hamstring injury. He originally hurt his finger and played through the injury.

The surgery was similar to the operation wide receiver Dez Bryant had in early January 2013. Bryant did not have a problem with his finger last season.

Since arriving as the sixth overall pick in 2012, Claiborne has dealt with several injuries. He had wrist surgery that kept him out of the offseason work as a rookie and dealt with a knee injury during camp. Last summer, he missed practice time with a knee sprain but was ready for the season opener.

A look at Rod Marinelli's scheme

February, 11, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- Since Rod Marinelli was named the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator, I've been asked more than a few times if the defense will look different in 2014.

Since Marinelli worked with Monte Kiffin in Tampa Bay for so long, the easy answer is no, it won't.

From 2010-12, Marinelli served as coordinator for the Chicago Bears after his stint as the head coach of the Detroit Lions. He had incredibly successful defenses. They forced a ton of turnovers (59 fumbles, 65 interceptions), scored 13 touchdowns and, most importantly, allowed the fourth-fewest points (904).

In 2012, the Bears had four Pro Bowl players in cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton. They had a league-high 44 takeaways and finished in the top 10 in rush defense, pass defense and points allowed.

I wanted to get a feel for a Marinelli defense versus a Kiffin defense, so I watched two Bears games from 2012 against the Cowboys and Green Bay Packers. The Bears intercepted Tony Romo five times and forced a sixth turnover in their 34-18 win at AT&T Stadium in Week 4. The Packers game came in Week 15 and Chicago did not have Brian Urlacher. The Packers won, 21-13.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
AP Photo/James D. SmithThe Cowboys' defense under Rod Marinelli shouldn't differ much schematically from the one the Cowboys ran under Monte Kiffin.
Like Kiffin, Marinelli did not employ a dime defense (six defensive backs) in either game. He played a nickel defense when faced with three-wide-receiver sets or empty packages. He brought five or more on a pass rush just 17 times in 98 pass plays.

Here's the breakdown:

Green Bay

Three-man pressure: None.
Four-man pressure: 34
Five-man or more pressure: 9

Dallas

Three-man pressure: 1
Four-man pressure: 44
Five-man or more pressure: 8

The Bears sacked Aaron Rodgers three times. They got Tony Romo once. While the Bears showed A-gap pressures with Urlacher and Lance Briggs against the Cowboys, they never brought both of them up the middle. Twice they brought the cornerback off the slot for a blitz. Most of the time Briggs was the extra rusher. The only time the Bears brought six rushers in the game came on Tillman's pick-six of Romo after a miscommunication with Dez Bryant.

Against the Packers, Marinelli used some zone blitzes, dropping Peppers into coverage with the slot corner and Briggs or Nick Roach bringing the pressure. He was more willing to bring both linebackers on blitzes up the middle against the Packers. Most of the pressure packages came on third-and-long, however the one time he brought seven rushers against Rodgers came on third-and-5 and the Bears got a stop.

Chicago played mostly zone in the two games I watched, which might not make guys like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne happy. Kiffin was reluctant to play man coverage at times and Carr and Claiborne never really earned trust to play it more.

Against the Cowboys, Marinelli allowed his cornerbacks to press more (12 times, including eight in the first half). He did not want Bryant and/or Miles Austin to get a head of steam going off the line of scrimmage, which helped put pressure on Romo almost from the outset.

Against the Packers, the Bears played only four snaps of press coverage, two in each half.

The key to the defense was the line play. That's nothing new. That's what helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl. That's what helped the Bears lead the league in takeaways in 2012. For this defense to work, the front four must get pressure, as witnessed by the low total of blitzes.

The Bears could get pressure with or without playing games up front with twists and stunts. It wasn't necessarily sacks. Remember, Romo was sacked just once in the game, but the Bears took it to the Cowboys' offensive line by just being active. Rodgers also felt pressure, although not as much.

So I'll go back to the original question: Will the Cowboys' defense look different in 2014? Schematically, I'd say not so much. And that's OK. The key, as it always is, will be the players playing it better.

“There's a certain philosophy, a certain defense they believe in,” linebacker Sean Lee said, “but we obviously have to get great at that base [defense] if we want to be able to build off that. I think Coach Marinelli has had a ton of success in the past. He's a great coordinator and we're going to have to find a way to improve individually if we want to play well within this defense.”
The Dallas Cowboys have so many issues, but health proved to be a nagging one in 2013. Now with quarterback Tony Romo recovering from back surgery, the questions about whether he'll return to top form will linger until the start of the regular season.

But Romo isn't alone in his recovery from health problems.

We look at five players whose health should concern the Cowboys moving forward:

Romo
1. Romo: The starting quarterback had a strong season (3,828 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions) until injuring his back in the Week 16 game at Washington. Romo dealt with minor back problems during the season, and it all came to a head against the Redskins. Now he's recovering from back surgery, and Cowboys officials say Romo should be ready for offseason workouts. Will Romo be the same elusive player with arm strength after his recovery? The data on recovering from back surgery says of course he will. Troy Aikman had a similar back surgery, but he was in his 20s not his mid-30s like Romo. If Romo can't recover or return to form, the Cowboys need to protect themselves and draft a quarterback. The team is opposed to using a first-round pick on a quarterback, but at some point it needs to in case Romo doesn't return as the same player.

Ware
2. DeMarcus Ware: Ware battled quad, neck and elbow problems in 2013. He's coming off a six-sack season, the first time since 2005 he failed to reach double-digits. He looked dominant at times, but faced fewer and fewer double-teams from opposing offenses in 2013. Is Ware on the decline? Was his health the reason for a poor season? The Cowboys have a big decision to make regarding their starting defensive end. If they keep him, his contract will be restructured to create salary-cap space. Pay cut? Ware is against that. Cutting him? The Cowboys would create a little more than $7 million in cap space, however, if Ware isn't on the decline and he plays well in 2014, it's a mistake that would haunt Dallas. The Cowboys could also make him a third-down player, but he is scheduled to make $12.2 million in base salary this season, which would make him the most expensive situational pass-rusher in league history.

Lee
3. Sean Lee. He's the heartbeat of the defense. Yet, because of injuries, he has failed to finish the past two seasons. He was placed on injured reserve in October 2012 with a toe injury. And he missed the final three games of the 2013 season with sprained ligaments in his neck. Dallas needs him on the field late in the season, especially with the Cowboys being in win-or-go-home games in Week 17. When you don't have your best pieces in the season's biggest moments, it leaves you at a disadvantage. The Cowboys protected themselves with Lee's contract extension, which increases the value based on playing time. He is missing time, and while he's not going anywhere, the Cowboys need him on the field for a full season to maximize his value.

Murray
4. DeMarco Murray. The starting running back is coming off a Pro Bowl season -- he rushed for 1,124 yards with nine touchdowns. Murray missed two games with a knee injury and hasn't played a full season in his three-year NFL career. Running back is a physically demanding position, and outside of the elite ones, NFL teams change backs on a regular basis. Murray will be 26 when the season starts in September, so he's young enough to think he has a bright future, however, his health gives you pause. The Cowboys addressed the position in the draft last year, selecting Joseph Randle in the fifth round. Getting another running back in the draft in May doesn't appear to be a need. But what the Cowboys need is Murray to play 16 games.

Claiborne
5. Morris Claiborne. The starting cornerback injured his shoulder in Week 1 and missed a total of six games because of hamstring injuries. He lost his starting job to Orlando Scandrick, and couldn't get it back. Claiborne, however, was the nickle cornerback, and when healthy was inconsistent in that role. The Cowboys moved up to the No. 6 spot overall in 2012 to grab him, but his health has been more of a story than his play on the field. He's entering a phase now where results are needed to justify that high draft pick.
MOBILE, Ala. -- Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne had a difficult 2013 season.

The Cowboys expected more from their first-round pick, but injuries and personal issues hampered his season. Claiborne was hoping he'd start the 2013 season off well, but he suffered a shoulder injury in Week 1 and it bothered him most of the season. Then Claiborne missed six total games because of nagging hamstring injury.

Claiborne
On the field, Claiborne had just one interception and was credited with eight pass-breakups in 2013.

Off the field, Claiborne became a dad and lost his father all within days of each other in December.

"A very challenging year," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "From what I know, from his perspective, if you step back from it and look at his age (23) and his personal experience there with the loss of his dad and building a family, on top of dealing with the disappointment with injury, he's a competitor. You put all that together and it was a hard year for him."

The Cowboys traded up in the 2012 draft to No. 6 overall to snag Claiborne, and the results haven't benefited them as yet. He lost his starting job to Orlando Scandrick and moved into the nickle corner spot. With the Cowboys playing plenty of nickle defense in 2013, it wasn't deemed a demotion. However, more plays on the ball are expected from Claiborne moving forward.

During the season, Claiborne said he wanted the Cowboys to play more man-to-man coverage, something he was used to doing in college and in his rookie season, which also could be described as a disappointment.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin employed more man coverage as the season progressed, but the injuries, especially a nagging hamstring problem that didn't leave him alone, was just one of the problems he faced last season.

Brandon Carr and Scandrick are the projected starters at cornerback again, with Claiborne being the nickle guy. But if the Cowboys draft another cornerback, it will be interesting to see the competition for the No. 3 cornerback spot in 2014.

Kiper mock 1.0 reaction: Cowboys

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
3:00
PM ET
The Dallas Cowboys enter the 2014 NFL draft needing to find as much defensive help as possible, preferably along the defensive line.

In Mel Kiper's first mock draft Insider for 2014, he has the Cowboys selecting Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 17th overall pick. (Kiper has the Baltimore Ravens winning the coin flip that will decide the final positioning at the NFL scouting combine.)

Two defensive linemen -- Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Notre Dame's Louis Nix -- went to the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers at Nos. 14 and 15. Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt went No. 23 to the Kansas City Chiefs. Oregon State's Scott Crichton went to Denver at No. 31.

Clinton-Dix is a sound pick. The Cowboys need safety help next to Barry Church. J.J. Wilcox, their third-round pick in 2013, and Jeff Heath, who was undrafted, handled that role last season and struggled. Wilcox lost his job to Heath with a knee injury and could not reclaim the starter's role, though he did split snaps later in the year.

Clinton-Dix is athletic and can play the center field safety role. He missed two games last year because of a suspension for accepting a loan from an assistant strength and conditioning coach. He finished the season with 52 tackles and two interceptions. In 2012, he had five interceptions.

The Cowboys' defense is predicated on the pass rush and turnovers. Clinton-Dix could help with the latter, but the Cowboys need a lot of help with the former.

Two years ago, the Cowboys were high on Alabama safety Mark Barron but traded up to get cornerback Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. Barron went one selection later to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Something else to note is Jason Garrett's relationship with Alabama coach Nick Saban. Garrett was on his staff with the Miami Dolphins and considers Saban one of his mentors. He will know all he needs to know about the Alabama players heading into the draft.

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