- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- Talk to people at Valley Ranch these days, and there seems to be a little sensitivity when conversations come up about the Dallas Cowboys' pass rush.
The Cowboys finished the 2011 season tied for seventh in the NFL with 42 sacks, 19.5 by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones said there is nothing wrong with the pass rush. Blitz-loving defensive coordinator Rob Ryan agreed.
"We have the talent there, and we'll just see how it goes," Ryan said. "I'm excited about it. I'm not going to say everything I believe, but I've got a feeling we will be just fine."
Some fans and media members remain skeptical.
A closer look reveals quarterbacks were getting rid of the ball faster with three- and five-step drops. Receivers were breaking clear from defensive backs faster, allowing quarterbacks to make faster reads and throws.
Double teams on Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff, the Cowboys' best defenders, gave opposing offenses more chances to make plays.
The Cowboys upgraded the talent on defense this spring by adding inside linebacker Dan Conner in free agency to possibly start alongside Sean Lee. Signing free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year, $50.1 million deal and drafting LSU's Morris Claiborne with the sixth pick overall instantly helped the defense.
Five of the seven picks in the draft were used on defensive players, with pass rushers selected in the third and fourth rounds. You can say the first three picks were designed to improve the pass rush. The Cowboys traded their second-rounder so they could move up and select Claiborne in the first round.
Coach Jason Garrett called Claiborne a cover corner. Jerry Jones noted the Cowboys' scouts gave Claiborne the highest grade for a defensive back since Deion Sanders. Those same scouts graded Claiborne higher than cornerback Patrick Peterson, the fifth pick of the draft last year by Arizona.
If you have an elite cornerback, he can shut down one side of the field and force the quarterback to hold on to the ball longer.
Third-round pick Tyrone Crawford, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive end from Boise State, while still raw in his development, impressed the coaches during the three-day rookie minicamp.
"Right now he's exactly what we thought he was," defensive line coach Brian Baker said. "Good athletic ability, quick and has some burst. He sees things really well."
The fourth-round selection was Kyle Wilber, a 6-foot-4, 249-pound outside linebacker from Wake Forest. Wilber told reporters his job is to "destroy the quarterback" in the same fashion as Ware.
"He's a smart kid. He plays hard," Ryan said of Wilber. "He knows how to cover, which is a hard thing for an outside linebacker. All they do is rush in college. Well, this kid knows how to cover. He's going to be a lot further advanced than most rookies are. The kid's got a lot of talent, so we hope he'll be able to help."
If you look into the future, Wilber could become a starter in 2013. Anthony Spencer, the starter at strongside linebacker, is playing for the franchise tender of $8.8 million this season. Talks about a long-term deal for Spencer have slowed down. The Cowboys could place the franchise tag on Spencer again next year, but Wilber could take over the starting spot if he impresses the coaches in 2012.
The most recent Cowboys player to become a full-time starter as a fourth-round pick was Doug Free, who was drafted in 2007.
In the draft and free agency, the Cowboys addressed needs by upgrading their defensive talent. Sure, the Cowboys say the pass rush was OK, but you can never have enough quality players.
And that's what this team needs now more than anything else: players who put pressure on the quarterback.
21hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo