IRVING, Texas – When the Cowboys first began offseason practices, there were no guarantees that Justin Durant would even make this team.
He was certainly in the mix as a returning starter but there were several options still in the mix.
A lot of that changed when Sean Lee went down in the first OTA practice, forcing Durant to go to the middle. While that has since changed with the emergence of Rolando McClain, who has taken over at the MIKE, Durant has now played both outside spots at some point this year.
One thing seems to be rather clear. Wherever Durant is lining up, it's been a good fit for the Cowboys.
We all know what the defense did last year, ranking last in the NFL in yards allowed at 6,645, the most in franchise history as well.
Things are different in 2014 and Durant is a big reason for that. Certainly, McClain's presence can't be undervalued but Durant has stepped up as one of the leaders, evident by his teammates electing him a captain before the season started.
"I still can't believe they did that and believe in me that much," Durant said Tuesday in a conference call with the Dallas-Fort Worth media. "My job is to go out there and show them why they voted me a captain. I try to play every play like it's my last and put a lot of effort out there. I'm not really the biggest talker. I just try to lead by example as much as I can."
Through seven games, Durant is leading the Cowboys in tackles with 51, just one ahead of McClain. Durant missed two games – road wins over Tennessee and St. Louis – with a groin injury but has been a tackle-machine in his other five games. His nine stops against the Saints is the only game this year in which Durant hasn't recorded double-figures in tackles. Durant had 11 tackles against San Francisco and Seattle and 10 each against Houston and the Giants.
Durant was asked if he's playing his best football of his career. He didn't give a definitive answer but said it's certainly close.
"I think it's definitely up there. It's just always room for improvement," said Durant, an eight-year pro. "I'm around the ball more than I have in the past. Turnovers, making plays, more than I have in the past. I just have to give credit to the coaches for allowing me to play like I am. We just have to be thankful for everyone and how we're playing."
Durant spent his four seasons of his career in Jacksonville before two years in Detroit. He joined the Cowboys in 2013 where he played 10 games, starting just six because of injury.
Head coach Jason Garrett said Durant's play might be surprising to some, but not the coaching staff.[embeddedad0]
"I think he's playing pretty darn well," Garrett said. "One of the evaluations we made in the offseason - you go back and look at guys and you have kind of a reel for each player. And if you look at his reel, it's pretty darn good. He was dealing with some injuries at different times last year. So I don't know if he ever got in a great rhythm in the defense. But when you go play by play and see how he played last year, he did a really nice job for us."
Under new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, Durant said the defensive players seem to be buying into their own roles and not extending themselves, something he said was an issue last year.
"It never was a question of whether they wanted to do it," Durant said, referring to last year's defense. "I just think everyone is getting the minor details down. We have friendly competition as far as making plays. People are doing their job and not trying to do too much. I think we did that last year where we tried to make too many plays and got out of position."