ORLANDO – When Jerry Jones sat down with a group of reporters on Tuesday morning at the NFL owners meetings, his first question asked him to address free agency.
He responded by saying the defensive line will be better than last year.
A few minutes later, when asked about Henry Melton's addition to the line, Jones eventually reiterated how this year's line will be an improvement from 2013.
And later, when asked about the team being in a rebuilding mode, Jones heavily denied that and again mentioned having an improved defense, stating once again, "our defensive line is definitely improved from what we had last year."
Despite the loss of the club's all-time sack leader in DeMarcus Ware, along with Pro Bowler Jason Hatcher, who had the most sacks by a Cowboys' defensive tackle in 31 years, the team not only will replace them, but be better.
Jones is making himself rather clear in that regard.
"I think we've addressed some long-term cap management that we needed to address," Jones said. "And I don't think we've precluded ourselves from not having a better defensive line than we had last year or a better defense. I think we have assured ourselves that we will have a better defense and a better defensive line than we had last year."
Ranking-wise, it couldn't get any worse. The Cowboys not only were dead last in the NFL in yards allowed (415.3) per game, but it was the worst in franchise history, by far.
Jones said the additions of Melton, Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain will help offset the losses of Ware and Hatcher, who have since signed with the Broncos and Redskins, respectively. But Jones seems most excited about getting Tyrone Crawford back from a torn Achilles injury he suffered on the first day of training camp last July. The Cowboys should also get some depth with Ben Bass returning, not to mention Nick Hayden and George Selvie, who is the team's leading sack returner with seven, a career-high.
More than anything, Jones is hopeful that getting younger means getting healthier as well.
"It's unacceptable to get in the situation we got in last year, a combination of injuries and the practice of having to evaluate players throughout the year continually," said Jones. "We can remedy that. That, plus more familiarity with our defensive players that we have on our roster now, we'll most assuredly be much better defensively than we were last year."
The end result sounds good, but just how does Jones think this overnight change will occur? From the sounds of things, he's hoping for a simple case of "less is more."
"We'd like for our top players to get 30-35 snaps in the defensive line," Jones said. "We'd like to have the depth to come in. We played a lot of guys last year at 40-50 plays that should've played 15 or 20."
The Cowboys were forced to play with 17 different defensive linemen at some point in the season, and that excludes Crawford, Bass and Jay Ratliff, who all never took a snap in 2013.
Despite the Cowboys' defensive woes, it likely would've been worse without defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who will continue to work with the linemen as well as assume defensive coordinator duties. Marinelli was the defensive coordinator in Chicago, where he helped Melton to his best two seasons as a pro in 2001-12. [embedded_ad]
Selvie, Hayden and even Hatcher all enjoyed career seasons under Marinelli last year, along with several of the fill-in linemen who were signed off the street. So when Lovie Smith called to get Marinelli out of his contract and become the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator, it's easy to see why Jones declined.
"I wouldn't want to dismiss the contribution he made last year," Jones said of Marinelli as the defensive line coach. "But it's neat and important, and was important in my thinking, that you had Rod Marinelli available on our staff. He's not only very accomplished as a coordinator, but he's certainly recognized by players as well as his peers as being one of the top interior line coaches there are."
So good that he has Jones utterly convinced his group up front will be much improved this year – despite losing 17 years of experience, a combined eight Pro Bowls and 50 percent of last year's team sack total.