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Team Report - DALLAS COWBOYS

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INSIDE SLANT

Hope has never been considered a game plan or a strategy.

But when it comes to the 2014 season and the Dallas Cowboys' plan to improve a league-worst defense, they have no choice.

The Cowboys are without their top three defenders from a year ago in defensive end DeMarcus Ware, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and middle linebacker Sean Lee.

They will certainly have replacements on field when training camp begins July 23 but no proven performers. It's up to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to make chicken salad out of chicken you know what.

His solution seems to be based on hope.

"We just got to get guys to have career years," he said. "I think you set standards for men. If you don't set standards, you certainly won't reach them. If I put a ceiling on them and say, 'This is all I expect of you,' that's all you'll get.

"I take the ceiling off. I want every guy to have a career year. That's how I do it."

The Cowboys are betting that defensive tackle Henry Melton comes back from knee surgery and returns to Pro-Bowl form while putting up career best numbers.

Vice-president Stephen Jones said it's a calculated gamble because Melton developed into a Pro-Bowl performer in Chicago under defensive coordinator Marinelli.

"And not only proven himself in the league as a Pro Bowler he proved it under this coach and this system so that made a huge difference for us," Stephen Jones said. "It's not like we're betting on some guy that OK, Rod's going to make him better because he's Rod. We saw how Henry played under Rod in this system. The only difference is he's coming off an ACL but he should be healthy based on what our doctors say and based on how he's progressing."

They are hoping defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford comes back from a torn Achilles and finally lives up to the enormous expectations they have for him.

They are gambling that weak-side linebacker Bruce Carter rebounds from a disappointing 2013 campaign and becomes a Derrick Brooks type impact player in this Tampa 2 scheme.

The defense has been tailored for Carter to be the team's leading tackler and playmaker -- this after he was benched twice last season for poor play and a defeatist attitude.

They are hoping a secondary that allowed four 400-yard passers a year ago will improve despite no upgrades in personnel and proven pass rushers added to the roster.

The Cowboys took DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round to hopefully replace the departed Ware. But Ware's disappointing six sacks a year ago would be considered great for Lawrence in his rookie year.

Marinelli knows the rush needs to be better and he hopes to get it done across the board with everyone having career years.

"Every guy, I'm going to coach as hard as I can to be the best pass rusher he can be," Marinelli said, "and if you do that, the numbers will start falling for you. Right now, hopefully the strength is the unit. Hopefully, we have eight guys that we feel good about and each guy, nobody's selfish, and you play the game as hard as you can play it and play it as well as you can play it."

CAMP CALENDAR

July 23: Cowboys report to camp.

July 24: First practice.

Aug. 12-13: Joint practices with the Oakland Raiders.

Aug. 15: Camp ends.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Cowboys acquired linebacker Rolando McClain from the Ravens in the hopes he can get ready to play.

McClain hasn't played in a game since Nov. 2012, and was on the Baltimore Ravens' retired list. Originally with the Raiders, McClain was released and signed by Baltimore.

Earlier this offseason, he worked out for the Ravens, but wasn't in football shape and was placed back on the retired list.

--The Cowboys see the NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs as a team that exemplifies everything they want to be about. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett spoke to his team about the Spurs and also showed them tape of how they play as a team.

"It's hard not to appreciate what they've done through these playoffs," Garrett said. "You can't deny brilliance. You can't deny excellence. That's what they are. They're the quintessential team.

"I don't care if you're a Miami Heat fan, if you're an L.A. Lakers fan, if you're a Dallas Mavericks fan and you watch that series and how they played throughout the playoffs, it's hard not to have an appreciation for what they've done.

"The coach is as good as it gets. It's everything you aspire to when you're trying to build a franchise and build a team. There are a lot of lessons we can learn, a lot of lessons a lot of teams can learn because they do it the right way and they do it at the highest level."

Quarterback Tony Romo also spoke glowingly of what the Spurs accomplished this season, including defeating the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in five games during the finals.

"That's how basketball is meant to be played," Romo said. "It was just a great collection of individuals who came together as a team and you can just see it. It wasn't about any one person and that's what all teams are trying to get to. They just exemplified what you strive for in team sports.

"The old Spurs, they'd slow the game down, throw it inside, look for a good shot and that worked out well," Romo said. "They're not that way anymore. They're a team that is going to push the ball, they're going to run pick-and-roll, but a lot of that is to create space on the floor, so they can kick the ball and have four or five shooters on the floor at all times.

"It's a testament to their staff and their players to change with the times. Even though they won championships a different way, they evolved into this team and they're not dependent on any one individual. ... If you watch them, it's a great, beautiful game that they play."

--The Cowboys will have joint practices against the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 12-13 at the Cowboys' training camp site in Oxnard, Calif. The Oxnard site formerly served as the Raiders' training camp home when they were in Los Angeles.

Practices are scheduled for 4 p.m. on Aug. 12, with the time to be determined for the Aug. 13 morning practice. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett looks forward to the opportunity to work against another team.

"We've been doing practices with other teams for a lot of years," Garrett said. "I did them a lot as a player in this organization. We used to have some unbelievable practices with the Raiders way back when, and I have always just felt it's a good way to really spice up training camp. Sometimes you get into a mode in training camp where you are working against the same guys again and again and again, and you need to kind of freshen the whole atmosphere up. When you bring another team in, and you get a chance to work with and against different guys, I just think that adds a lot to the energy of practice and the competitive nature of practice.

"You have to do it with an organization and a team that really has like values when you practice, where you're trying to get the same things out of it, create situations, create competition and do it the right way. I have a lot of respect for Dennis Allen and the staff he has there in Oakland and how they do things. I think it will be a good couple of days for us."

--Team strength: Offensive line.

The Cowboys will be led by their line. The team has invested three first-round picks up front so it should be the strength of the team. Left tackle Tyron Smith, a 2011 first-round pick and a Pro Bowler last year, is the anchor. He joins center Travis Frederick and left guard Zack Martin to form a nucleus that the Cowboys hope will be the foundation for success in 2014 and for years to come.

--Breakout player: Defensive end/tackle Tyrone Crawford.

Crawford is the player everyone on the Cowboys expects big things from in 2014. The former 2012 second-round pick was supposed to break out last year but suffered a torn Achilles on the first day of training camp. He went about his rehab aggressively and purposefully. Look for him to be a disruptive force as a pass rusher.

--Fantasy football reality check: Tight end Gavin Escobar.

Escobar should be an intriguing fantasy prospect. He will again backup Jason Witten. But the Cowboys have plans for him. Look for him in three-receiver packages and also look for him to become a huge red-zone target for quarterback Tony Romo. Six or more touchdowns are not out of the realm of possibility.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Tony Romo. Backups - Brandon Weeden, Caleb Hanie, Dustin Vaughan.

Romo should be ready to go for training camp after being limited in the offseason due to December back surgery. It was his second back surgery in as many seasons. But unlike last year when he didn't do anything in the offseason and came into camp out of shape, he is ahead of schedule and the Cowboys have actually held him back to be on the safe side. The Cowboys remain committed to Romo, which is why they passed on Johnny Manziel in the NFL draft. They believe he has many more years left and can build off last season's strong performance when he had 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions thanks to an influx of new ideas from new play-caller Scott Linehan. The training camp concern in Dallas is the backup quarterback. Kyle Orton was released. They liked what they saw from Weeden in OTAs and minicamp and believe he can handle the job after being a first-round bust in Cleveland. Caleb Hanie was also signed for insurance.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - DeMarco Murray, FB Tyler Clutts. Backups - Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams, Joseph Randle, FB J.C. Copeland.

The Cowboys started getting the ball to Murray late last season and it paid off. He rushed for the third-most yards in the NFL in the final eight games of last season and finished the year with 1,121 yards and his first Pro-Bowl berth. Look for him to build on his late 2013 success with new offensive play-caller Scott Linehan in charge this season. Murray could get as many as 300 carries in 2014 as Linehan will scheme to get him the ball. Dunbar will serve as the change-of-pace back and Williams could be the every-down replacement for Murray as he could push Randle off the roster. Clutts will likely retain the fullback job because of his work on special teams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter- Jason Witten. Backups - Gavin Escobar, James Hanna, Jordan Najvar.

Witten, 32, remains one of the league's most reliable pass catchers. He delivered again in 2013 with 73 receptions for 851 yards and eight touchdowns. Look for his number to drop in little in 2014 as the Cowboys try to get little-used 2013 second-round pick Gavin Escobar more involved this season, especially in the red zone. Escobar is bigger and stronger after hitting the weight room hard in the offseason to shore up his deficiencies as a blocker. But Witten remains Romo's most trusted option. Hanna needs to finally put some production behind his potential.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams. Backups - Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Devin Street, Tim Benford, Chris Boyd, LaRon Byrd, Jamar Newsome, L'Danian Washington.

The sky is the limit for Bryant, who is only poised to get better after catching 93 passes for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns in earning his first Pro Bowl invitation last season. Williams takes over full time at receiver opposite Bryant with Miles Austin released in the offseason. But it will not represent much of a change as Williams took over the job last season with Austin out with injury. Williams, a 2013 third-round pick, caught 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns. He has looked comfortable in the offseason in his permanent role, which should bode well for the Cowboys. Look for Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley to handle the inside receiver roles on third down. The Cowboys have big plans for Beasley and he will be an integral part of the offense. They like the big-play ability of rookie fifth-round pick Devin Street. He looked like he belonged in OTAs and minicamp and could play his way into a role in training camp.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Tyron Smith, LG Ron Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free. Backups - G Mackenzy Bernadeau, G Brian Clarke, G Andre Cureton, G Tyronne Green, G Ronald Patrick, G Uche Nwaneri, T Josh Aladenoye, T Darius Morris, T Jermey Parnell, T John Wetzel.

The Cowboys want to win as they did in the 1990s when they were led by a dominant offensive line. They continued on that path in the draft with the selection of Martin with the 16th overall pick. He is the third first-round pick to be used on an offensive lineman in the last four years, joining tackle Tyron Smith in 2011 and center Travis Frederick in 2013. Smith is the anchor of the unit and is coming off his first Pro Bowl and he is still only 23. Frederick was a walk-in starter and immediately became one of the best in the league. Look for Martin to start out at right guard before replacing Free at right tackle in 2015. Free had a bounce-back season at tackle in 2013 after being forced to take pay cut to keep his job, but he is in the last year of his contract. The only battle in camp will be at left guard where Leary, last year's starter, will compete with Bernadeau and former Jacksonville Jaguars starter Nwaneri for the starting job.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LE George Selvie, NT Nick Hayden, UT Henry Melton, RE DeMarcus Lawrence. Backups -T Terrell McClain, T Tyrone Crawford, T Ben Bass, T Ken Bishop, E Jeremy Mincey, E Anthony Spencer, E Ben Gardner, E Caesar Rayford, T Amobi Okoye, T Chris Whaley.

This position remains a sore point going into training camp. While the Cowboys pointed to the aging and injury depleted defensive line as the reason for fielding the worst defense in the league last season and while they moved on from veterans DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher and hitched their hopes on younger players, they remain an unproven lot up front. Free-agent signee Melton, 15.5 sacks in four seasons in Chicago, is now the anchor at the under tackle position but he is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Rookie second-round pick Lawrence has been tabbed to replace Ware as the primary pass rusher from right end. But that will come in the years ahead rather than in 2014. The Cowboys hope to be better just because they are younger. They will use their linemen in a rotation in hopes of keeping them fresher and more productive. The Cowboys are betting on a big season from Melton and are hoping for a breakout season from Crawford. McClain has been impressive in minicamp and could push Hayden for the starting job at the nose. They are looking for Selvie to build on the career-high seven sacks he had a year ago.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Bruce Carter, MLB Justin Durant, SLB Kyle Wilber. Backups - MLB Anthony Hitchens, OLB Devonte Holloman, OLB Cam Lawrence, MLB Orie Lemon, OLB Keith Smith, OLB Will Smith, OLB Joe Windsor, OLB Dontavis Sapp, MLB Rolando McClain.

The Cowboys have one of the best middle linebackers in the NFL when Sean Lee is healthy. Suffice it to say, he has never played a full season because of injuries and won't play at all in 2014 after suffering a torn ACL in OTAs. The big question heading into camp is who will man the middle in place of Lee. The veteran Durant will get the first shot. He manned the spot in OTAs and minicamp and looked comfortable. Holloman will also get a long look in training camp. The Cowboys drafted Hitchens to be Lee's primary backup, but he remains a work in progress and is still trying to make the transition from outside linebacker in college. The Cowboys are also taking a flyer on McClain, who is coming out of retirement, but most wonder about his commitment to the game. Bruce Carter was a huge disappointment at weak-side linebacker in 2013, but he is the one they are counting on to finally hit it big in 2014. The defense has been tailored for Carter to make plays. He will be covered by a tackle at all times so he can run free to the ball. Wilber remains a fixture on the strong side after moving to the spot from defensive end for emergency reasons last year. A bust as a defensive end, Wilber has seemingly found a home at linebacker.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Brandon Carr, CB Orlando Scandrick, S Barry Church, S J.J. Wilcox. Backups - CB Morris Claiborne, CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Sterling Moore, CB Tyler Patmon, CB Dashaun Phillips, S Matt Johnson, S Jeff Heath, S Jakar Hamilton, S Ahmad Dixon, CB Ryan Smith.

The Cowboys went into the offseason with one of the worst safety situations in the league. Yet they did nothing to improve the position. They are banking on Wilcox getting better in his second year and Johnson finally getting on the field after missing the past two seasons with injuries. And if neither of those two hit, they are hoping that Hamilton, who started at Georgia as a freshman before getting kicked off the team and transferring to tiny South Carolina State, can hit like the lottery. That is on the line for the Cowboys in training camp as they search for a suitable counterpart to strong safety Church. At cornerback, the Cowboys are hoping former 2012 first-round pick Claiborne is ready to take his starting job back from Scandrick. That may be wishful thinking as Scandrick was the team's best cornerback a year ago and seems motivated to make a Pro-Bowl bid in 2014. Still, this is a big camp and a big season for Claiborne as the Cowboys must decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal after the season, worth around $10 million. He has yet to prove worthy of that deal. The Cowboys may also have a decision to make after the season on Carr, who was given a five-year, $50.1 million deal in 2012. He allowed 966 yards receiving all by himself. Carr comes into the season with the team's highest salary-cap number as they didn't want to restructure his deal and move money in future years in case they had to move on from Carr sooner rather than later. He needs a good camp and a good season too.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Bailey, LS L.P. Ladouceur, P Chris Jones, KR-PR Dwayne Harris.

Bailey is the best at what he does on the team. He is so good the Cowboys don't even bother to bring in competition to training camp. In 2013, Bailey made 28 of 30 field-goal tries, including six of seven from 50 yards or more. He also has eight game-winning field goals in his career. And if Bailey is not the best at what he does, then that honor goes to Ladouceur, who may be the team's most reliable player. He has never had a bad snap in his career, including 493 punts, 214 field goals, and 302 PATs. Jones was solid in his first full season as the punter. He averaged 44.8 yards and a 39.3 net on 99 punts. Harris was the Cowboys best special teams player last year, considering he led them in special teams tackles in addition to ranking third in the NFL in punt return average (12.8) and second in kick return average (30.6).

PERSONNEL TRACKER

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)

--OL Ryan Cook (not tendered as UFA).

--DE Edgar Jones(not tendered as UFA).

--QB Jon Kitna (not tendered as UFA).

--RB Phillip Tanner (not tendered as RFA).

--G Brian Waters (not tendered as UFA).

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.

EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.

DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED

--G/T Zack Martin (1/16): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--LB Anthony Hitchens (4/119): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--WR Devin Street (5/146): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--DE Ben Gardner (7/231): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--LB Will Smith (7/238): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--S Ahmad Dixon (7/248): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--DT Ken Bishop (7/251): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

--CB Terrance Mitchell (7/254): 4 yrs, terms unknown.

PLAYERS RE-SIGNED

--K Dan Bailey: Potential RFA; $22.5M/7 yrs, $4M SB/$6.6M guaranteed.

--P Chris Jones: Potential ERFA; $645,0001/1 yr.

--DE Anthony Spencer: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

PLAYERS ACQUIRED

--QB Caleb Hanie: FA; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--DE Terrell McClain: Not tendered as RFA by Texans; 3 yrs, terms unknown.

--DT Henry Melton: UFA Bears; $27.5M/4 yrs, $1.25M SB ($24M is in final three years).

--DE Jeremy Mincey: UFA Broncos; $4.5M/2 yrs, $2M guaranteed.

--G Uche Nwaneri: FA Jaguars; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--DT Amobi Okoye: FA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.

--QB Brandon Weeden: FA Browns; $1.23M/2 yrs.

--RB Ryan Williams: FA Cardinals; terms unknown.

PLAYERS LOST

--WR Miles Austin (released/post-June 1 designation).

--DE Everette Brown (released).

--C Phil Costa (released).

--DT Jason Hatcher: UFA Redskins; $27.5M/4 yrs, $9M SB/$10.5M guaranteed.

--DT Corvey Irvin (released).

--DT Frank Kearse (released).

--S Danny McCray: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.

--LB Ernie Sims: Not tendered as UFA/Cardinals; terms unknown.

--DE DeMarcus Ware (released).

--DE Jarius Wynn: UFA Bills; 1 yr, terms unknown.

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