Although they weren’t wearing pads during OTAs and minicamp, we have a slightly better idea of what the Dallas Cowboys will be doing defensively in 2014. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are playing elsewhere and Sean Lee is likely out for the season. So, who will be in the Cowboys starting lineup when they open the season against San Francisco? Here’s my prediction.
Safety: Barry Church. The team’s leading tackler in 2013 is undoubtedly the best safety on the roster. As long as he’s healthy, Church will be starting. Entering his fifth season, the former undrafted rookie free agent continues to impress the Cowboys coaching staff.
Safety: J.J. Wilcox. Stephen Jones is a big fan of Wilcox. The Cowboys drafted him last year in the third round, however, he had trouble adjusting to the pro game. The former Georgia Southern standout will get every opportunity to win a starting job during training camp. Dallas showed a lot of faith in Wilcox’s abilities when they chose not to draft a safety in the first round last month.
Cornerback: Brandon Carr. Although he’s coming off one of the most disappointing seasons of his career, the 28-year-old recently said he’s "trying to take over the league" in 2014. Rod Marinelli is expected to use his corners in more man coverage this season and that certainly works to Carr’s strengths.
Cornerback: Orlando Scandrick. Most would say former sixth-overall pick Morris Claiborne should be starting opposite of Carr. I’m going with Scandrick because he was the top performing corner on the team last season. The Cowboys play a lot of nickel coverage, so all three will be on the field often.
Weakside linebacker: Bruce Carter. No one had a tougher transition to the 4-3 scheme than Carter. He looked unsure of himself on many occasions and was benched multiple times. Carter’s size and athleticism make him a good fit on the weakside, but he’ll need to regain his confidence to make an impact. In this system, Carter should be the team’s leading tackler.
Middle linebacker: Justin Durant. The 28-year-old has mostly played on the outside in his seven NFL seasons. But as the veteran of the bunch, Durant will get the first crack at replacing Lee in the middle. The Cowboys want their best three linebackers in the starting lineup, so if Durant is healthy, he should be in that group. In 2012, Durant recorded 103 tackles in 14 starts for Detroit.
Strongside linebacker: Kyle Wilber. The 25-year-old Wake Forest product played in all 16 games last season, recording 44 tackles and two sacks. The Cowboys moved him around often in an attempt to find his best spot in the 4-3 defense. That position ended up being on the strongside. He’s athletic enough to play in space and strong enough to line up with his hand in the dirt.
Defensive end: DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys traded up 13 spots in the second round and gave away their third-round pick because they think Lawrence has the potential to be an outstanding right defensive end. Can the rookie match Ware’s 2013 output of six sacks? If he does, the Cowboys might not be the league’s worst defense for a second consecutive season.
Defensive end: Tyrone Crawford. Last month, Tony Romo said Crawford is his pick to be the team’s breakout player this season, adding that the former second-round pick is going to be "very, very difficult to deal with for offenses." After missing all of last season with a torn left Achilles tendon, Crawford should be on the field often, even getting some time at defensive tackle.
Defensive tackle: Terrell McClain. He was one of the Cowboys’ most impressive players during organized team activities and figures to be their best option at the one-technique position. With Henry Melton sidelined during OTAs and minicamp, McClain also flashed at the three-technique spot. McClain hasn’t started a game since 2011 but he’ll likely be a starter for the Cowboys in 2014.
Defensive tackle: Henry Melton. The 2012 Pro Bowler will be the starter at the three-technique position if he’s healthy. Replacing Hatcher’s team-high 11 sacks will be tough, but Melton is very familiar with Marinelli’s system. He recorded 13 sacks during the 2011 and 2012 seasons while working with the Cowboys defensive coordinator.