Something's gotta give.
Call that the unofficial motto for the 2014 Dallas Cowboys, thanks to three consecutive 8-8 seasons, all ending with Jerry Jones' team losing a Week 17 contest to a divisional foe and missing out on the playoffs. Head coach Jason Garrett has survived all of those letdowns ... somehow. He is back for year four as the full-time head coach, his best work arguably still being the 5-3 mark he posted as an interim over the second half of 2010.
Perhaps spurred on by the limited remaining window of Tony Romo's career -- he turned 34 this offseason -- Jones has attempted to reload on the fly, rather than go the full-rebuild route. All this as salary-cap troubles lingered over every move he made.
Those challenges caught up with him again this offseason. Gone are long-time Dallas defensive end DeMarcus Ware, one of the former faces of this franchise; defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who split for Washington; and underachieving receiver Miles Austin. Jones spread around the money he did have available, nabbing Henry Melton to plug the spot vacated by Hatcher and adding potential role players like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Uche Nwaneri. The incoming rookie class should (and will have to) provide some help, led by first-round selection Zack Martin and second-rounder Demarcus Lawrence.
Nothing that Jones accomplished over the past few months, however, screams "Super Bowl contender".
On the contrary, the growing belief at the moment is that the Cowboys are positioned for a tumble down the standings. Philadelphia captured the NFC East crown in Chip Kelly's first season at the helm while Washington should be far more competitive than last season. That leaves the Cowboys and Giants, a combined one game under .500 last season, hoping they can at least duct tape over their holes enough to make a run.
Dallas has no choice but to cross its fingers and hope it all comes together.
Best acquisition: Henry Melton, DT
Imagine one of those movie scenes where a guy is running toward a girl in slow-motion. Now make the girl an end zone and the guy a running back, and you pretty much have an accurate representation of the Cowboys' run defense last season.
Dallas allowed 128.5 yards per game on the ground, and though five teams actually fared worse than that, few were undone quite as badly by their deficiencies up front. In all eight of their losses last season, the Cowboys coughed up 100 yards or more on the ground. They were 4-0 when they managed to hold their opponents to double digits. (Oddly enough, in the three games in which they allowed 200-plus yards rushing, they posted a 2-1 mark.)
Enter Melton, who will be front and center of the attempt to shore up that aspect of Dallas' defense. Prior to missing all but three games last season with an ACL injury, Melton had established himself as one of the pre-eminent three-technique defensive tackles in football. The Cowboys are banking on him to regain his 2012 Pro Bowl form ... and to offset the loss of veteran DT Hatcher.
"You see some of those running back traits in terms of quickness, explosiveness, change of direction,” Garrett said of Melton, once a running back at Texas. "He was hurt last year and only played in three games. He’s coming off an ACL, but he played very well for Rod Marinelli a couple of years ago and I feel like we can get him to that place.”
Marinelli was bumped up to defensive coordinator this year, replacing the highly criticized Monte Kiffin. He will not have the luxury of easing Melton into the lineup, not with Hatcher now in Washington and limited options penciled in behind Melton. The ex-Bears assistant coach needs the ex-Bears D-line star to carry a heavy load from Week 1 onward.
Melton is capable of such responsibility, but he also has yet to work out in full with his new team -- he sat out OTAs while continuing to rehab his knee. The Cowboys expect to have him back in time for training camp.
Biggest loss: DeMarcus Ware, DE
This one may hurt for awhile, both in perception and reality. Regarding the latter, Ware had turned in seven consecutive seasons of double-digit sacks before he slipped to 6.0 during an injury-hampered 2013. Opponents had to make note of his whereabouts anyway, despite that production drop, and at 32 years of age this July, Ware ought to have enough left in the tank for another productive season or three.
The Broncos will reap the benefits of whatever bounce-back Ware may be in line for this year. Dallas, meanwhile, has to piece together some semblance of a pass rush with Ware and Hatcher (11.0 sacks in '13) departing; DE George Selvie, who surprised with 7.0 sacks last season, is a question mark for the start of camp due to offseason shoulder surgery. Selvie's health is a necessity as this point, as is the eventual return of DE Anthony Spencer, who hurt his knee just one game into '13 and is slowly recovering from microfracture surgery.
That leaves Selvie, Jeremy Mincey and 2014 second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence as the main men at DE. The Cowboys have to figure out some way to generate some heat from there -- they finished last season with just 34 sacks, the sixth-lowest total in the league and a major part of why they could not stop the pass.
As for the perception aspect of all this ...
Ware, a first-round pick in '05, had been with the Cowboys for all of his nine NFL seasons. Jerry Jones seemed to believe that long-term partnership would buy him some leeway in negotiations this offseason, and Jones needed such a break with his team tight against the cap. Instead, Jones' financial missteps left the door open for Ware to depart, which he did when Denver came calling with a three-year, $30 million deal. Hometown discount, be damned.
Underrated draft pick: Terrance Mitchell, CB
The Cowboys had five seventh-round picks to play with this past draft. They appear to have gotten their money's worth on them.
Ken Bishop is pushing Hayden for playing time at DT, while S Ahmad Dixon has a chance to steal some playing time at a thin spot on the depth chart. It is Mitchell, though, who may wind up being the star of that Round 7 group. A 38-game starter at Oregon, Mitchell certainly has flaws in his game -- he ran a 4.63 40 at the combine and may not be physical enough for man-to-man coverage in the NFL, hence his draft drop -- but the upside is there. He plays faster than that posted 40 time (and reportedly ran faster in later workouts), plus turned in seven interceptions during his days with the Ducks.
As with most seventh-round picks, Mitchell may have to earn his way onto the active roster through special teams. Should he do so, the Cowboys' underachieving secondary will be ripe with opportunity.
“You value bigger guys at the corner positions, particularly this late in the draft," Garrett said. "You want guys who have some traits to develop. We feel like he has a chance."
Looming question for training camp: Is there any chance this defense can replace Sean Lee?
Although this offers little consolation, the Cowboys at least have experience playing without Lee, their standout middle linebacker. He missed 10 games back in 2012, another five last season and now is done for all of '14 after tearing his ACL in May. That's not to say the Cowboys have fared all that well spelling Lee, as evidenced by their league-worst defense last season. When he is healthy, an increasingly rare phenomenon, Lee remains one of the more able, all-around middle linebackers in football.
Dallas' fallback options -- likely either veteran Justin Durant, 2013 sixth-rounder DeVonte Holloman or '14 fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens -- hardly offer the type of stability that Lee can bring to the table. Holloman or Hitchens may wind up being the play, should the Cowboys opt for youth (and potential) over experience.
The loss of Lee drops even more attention on those aforementioned defensive linemen, especially Melton, Hayden and Bishop along the interior. Should offensive lines hold that trio in check, the Cowboys will feel the absence of their MLB safety net even more. For a defense that has had myriad issues over the past few seasons and then was hit hard by the salary cap, Lee was the remaining player it could least afford to lose.