Cowboys' suspension-riddled D marked by youth, unproven vets
OXNARD, Calif. (AP) The Dallas defense figures to start the season with a cornerback as its career sacks leader, which explains why Rod Marinelli recently was asked if he can remember coaching so many inexperienced or unproven players.
And when someone suggested that he would prefer a batch of Pro Bowl pass rushers instead, the Cowboys defensive coordinator skipped the obvious one-word answer and said, ''That we develop.''
Owner Jerry Jones and son Stephen, the executive vice president of personnel, are counting on that mentality with Dallas missing three suspended starters to open the season. It's possible that two of them - linebacker Rolando McClain and rush end Randy Gregory - will miss the entire season dealing with their issues.
Add to that a mediocre 2015 when the Cowboys were last in the NFL in takeaways and turnover margin, and the questions were plentiful at training camp. The Cowboys broke camp Wednesday and play their preseason home opener Friday night against Miami.
''Those things hurt,'' Marinelli said of McClain's 10-game suspension and the four-game ban for Gregory and fellow end DeMarcus Lawrence - all on violations of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
''But disarray sounds like everybody's going different directions. Nobody knows what they're doing. I think of a bunch of men who want to play like a unit. If we just play together as a defense, we did that a couple of years ago, and this has got a little more talent actually right now than we did.''
Marinelli spoke of 2014, when Dallas was among the league leaders by forcing 31 turnovers on a 12-4 team that won the NFC East and a playoff game.
But when quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant missed significant time with injuries last season, the defense couldn't make up the difference with game-changing plays as the Cowboys tumbled to 4-12.
The Cowboys tried the approach of a proven pass rusher in free agency last year, signing Greg Hardy despite the stain of a domestic violence case and a looming suspension that originally was 10 games but reduced to four. Hardy's production sagged along with the team's fortunes late in the season.
So now, cornerback Orlando Scandrick enters the season with the most sacks (9 1/2, same as the missing McClain). And the biggest pickup in free agency was Benson Mayowa from Oakland on an offer sheet. He has two sacks in three seasons.
''This is why we have 100 guys out here at camp because you have to find the next person to fill in to those shoes,'' cornerback Brandon Carr said. ''And also it's up to us veteran guys as leaders out there on the defense to kind of set the tone, to hold everybody accountable.''
Marinelli prefers an eight-player rotation in his line, and he has plenty of unheralded choices at the moment. Cedric Thornton out of Philadelphia is a free agent addition in the interior line, along with rookie third-round pick Maliek Collins from Nebraska.
The other edge rushers are a mix of returning players (Lawrence when he gets back, David Irving, Ryan Russell), newcomers (rookie fourth-rounder Charles Tapper, Mike McAdoo) and a pair who can play inside and outside (Jack Crawford, Tyrone Crawford).
Tyrone Crawford and Lawrence have eight career sacks apiece, with Lawrence getting all eight in his second season last year when he led the team.
''You've got to be careful saying it's all about sacks,'' coach Jason Garrett said. ''It's about affecting the quarterback. We'll continue to try to help this younger pass rushers develop and grow, technically understanding our system, playing emotionally the right way over the course of a game.''
Without McClain in the middle, Sean Lee becomes the focal point of the linebackers. Third-year player Anthony Hitchens is the likely replacement for McClain, and the Cowboys brought back veteran Justin Durant for depth.
''For us, it's the fourth quarter, it's the turnovers,'' Lee said. ''I think we have the guys who can cause those big plays. We've got some guys back. So I think we have the group here that can play well. I think that the suspensions, we're not really focused on any of those.''
Carr is focused on ending a two-year interception drought after taking a pay cut in the final year of his five-year, $50 million free agent deal. Morris Claiborne is still trying to prove he's not a bust as a top 10 pick the same year Carr signed. And Scandrick is back after a major knee injury late in training camp a year ago sidelined him for the season.
''I think it's bigger than a chip at this point - it's probably like a big boulder,'' Carr said. ''We're not satisfied with last year's results. We left a lot of plays on the field.''
And the suspensions have left the Cowboys with holes to fill.
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