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Cowboys Have Steep Challenge In Addressing Defensive Concerns

IRVING, Texas – A lot will have changed by the time the Cowboys take the field for offseason practices this spring – that's to be expected, with both free agency and the NFL draft still to come.

Asked about that fact over the weekend, though, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones was blunt in his assessment of how much work he has to do in the coming months.

"I don't know that I will feel as good when we're through this year as I felt last year about personnel," Jones said on Saturday. "I felt about as good as I have in a long time. And we of course had a shocking for me disappointment."

The Cowboys were at the center of some of the most high-profile roster moves in the league landscape last year. They allowed DeMarco Murray to leave in free agency, replacing him with the cost-effective option of Darren McFadden. They signed a controversial Pro Bowl pass rusher in Greg Hardy, and they cheaply added two of the draft's most talented players in Randy Gregory and La'el Collins.

"We did a couple of free agent things last year that were real designed that gave us real upside for the right price, in my mind," Jones said. "At the end of the day, those things have to work as to the overall impact of the football team."

It's understandable to think it'll be hard to duplicate that success, considering all the spots the Cowboys need to address. Their pass rush is particularly troubling, as Hardy, Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford are set to enter free agency. That was compounded two weeks ago when Gregory was suspended for four games – an issue Jones admitted could trouble them for more than just the first month of the 2016 season.

"We have to look at the reality. We certainly know he won't be in the first four games," he said. "We have to get with the reality of dealing with what if it was more than that. Does it have the potential to be more than that? It could."

As it stands right now, the Cowboys are also without their starting middle linebacker from 2015. Their depth at the cornerback position is thin. They need to resolve the questions about the backup quarterback behind Tony Romo, and they don't have much in the way of running back depth behind McFadden.

But Jones was sure to focus most of his attention on the Dallas defense. The Cowboys generated a surprisingly small number of sacks last year, and they were middle-of-the-pack in most statistical categories. Most famously, they finished dead-last in the NFL in takeaways with a mere 11 on the year.

That's not to say there weren't bright spots. A Pro Bowl effort from Sean Lee and an eight-sack season from DeMarcus Lawrence come to mind. On top of that, first-round draft pick Byron Jones showed flashes of the athleticism and versatility that got him selected 27th overall.[embeddedad0]

It's a starting point – but something Jones was adamant about upgrading.

"We can go a long way in my mind with the players that we have, but I wouldn't dare go with them without adding to them on defense," he said. "We'll add to them in a combination of ways."

The first option is free agency, and – surprising as it may sound – that starts in a mere nine days. Between that and the draft, there's plenty of opportunity to add to the roster. It'll be interesting to see how Jones feels when it's all said and done.

"I know that 90 days from now has a good chance to not look like today – in some way. So if you take that possibility, then I feel good about what we can do about the defense," he said. "I may not be as happy with what I thought it was last year, which I've said. But I do know more will happen, and I do know more will happen with the idea in mind, at the time, that we've improved things."

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