DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DE Kenyon Coleman, NT Jay Ratliff, DE Marcus Spears. Backups — DE Jason Hatcher, DE Sean Lissemore, DE Clifton Geathers, NT Josh Brent.
Ratliff is the only player back in the same position as last year. A three-time Pro Bowler, Ratliff also remains at the heart and soul of the Cowboys defense. Nobody plays with more passion, intensity and competitiveness. He is the second best player on the defense behind linebacker DeMarcus Ware — and it's not even close. Spears moved from the right side to the left. Ironically a season after the Cowboys thought they could do without Spears, he was brought back to help shore up the run defense. Coleman was signed a free agent to anchor left end. He played the position the last two years in Cleveland under new coordinator Rob Ryan. Hatcher has had an impressive camp and will be the pass rusher off the bench. Lissemore has proven to be solid backup as well as Brent. Geathers has had a good camp and will not make it to the practice squad if he doesn't make the roster because other teams are likely to snatch him up.
LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB DeMarcus Ware, ILB Bradie James, ILB Keith Brooking, OLB Anthony Spencer. Backups — OLB Victor Butler, OLB Alex Albright, ILB Sean Lee.
Ware is arguably the league's best pass rusher. He led the team in sacks for the second time in his career last season. No one has had more sacks in the NFL than Ware since he entered the league in 2005. The scary part is he might be even better in Rob Ryan's unpredictable scheme. Ryan will line Ware up all over the line, including nose tackle on passing downs. The Cowboys need Spencer to finally show and give Ware some pass-rushing help consistently. He has been a disappointment in his career. It's now or never for him as he is in the final year of his contract. James and Brooking have been solid inside, but they are nearing the end of the line. Look for Lee to possibly take over for Brooking in the starting lineup by midseason if not before. Butler has had a strong preseason and could be a pass-rushing option if Spencer continues to falter. Williams has yet to step up in his third year and could be passed on the roster by the rookie Albright.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — CB Terence Newman, CB Mike Jenkins, S Abe Elam, S Gerald Sensabaugh. Backups — CB Alan Ball, CB Bryan McCann, S Barry Church, S Danny McCray.
The Cowboys' secondary gave up more touchdown passes and passing yards than any in team history last season. So an upgrade was necessary. The Cowboys unsuccessfully tried to sign free agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. In the end, they are back with the same two starters at cornerback from a year ago. Newman and Jenkins must be better though both were sidelined for the bulk of the preseason with injuries. Newman had a pulled groin and Jenkins had a stinger. The Cowboys hope an improved pass rush will help them get better play at cornerback. The good news is the Scandrick was most impressive in the preseason, signing a five-year contract extension and could replace Newman in the starting lineup. The Cowboys did upgrade at safety where Elam was signed as a free agent to replace Ball, who moved back to cornerback. Elam knows Ryan's defense from his days in Cleveland where he started the past two years. Elam will play strong safety and Sensabaugh will move to his more natural position of free safety, giving him a chance to make more plays. Church has proved to be a good option at the nickel safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters — P Mat McBriar, K David Buehler, K Dan Bailey, LS L.P. Ladouceur, KR DeMarco Murray, PR Dez Bryant.
McBriar, a Pro Bowler in 2010, is a weapon as a punter. Ladouceur is reliable as they come. Bryant is a game-breaker on returners and Murray should be threat on kickoff returns. The question is kicker where the Cowboys have four still on the roster going into the final preseason game. Buehler handled all the chores last season. But he was inconsistent on field goals. For now Buehler will handle kickoffs and Bailey placekicks.
Closer Look at the 'Boys: DEFENSE
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