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Scout's Eye: Previewing The Cowboys' Defense As OTAs Get Underway

IRVING, Texas – On Monday, I took a look at the Dallas offense ahead of Organized Team Activities.

The Cowboys take the field for the first of nine OTA sessions on Tuesday morning, so the spring season is officially underway. With the offense taken care of, here's a look at what I'll be watching for on the defensive side of the ball.

DE: I wrote last week week about Kenneth Boatright and how he might fit into the mix at end once we get started with these practices, but I also need to make a mention of Ben Gardner as well. Gardner was never able to get his rookie season started due to a number of different injuries, but when I walk past the weight room each day, there might not be a player that has physically changed his body more in his time away from the field than Gardner. He has added weight and strength to his frame, which should translate into his ability to help as a left defensive end, but also line up and take some snaps inside as a tackle as well.

DT: The plan in the offseason was to find a more athletic player to pair inside with Tyrone Crawford -- not only in those base situations, but the nickel as well. A player that I believe could fit that role is Terrell McClain. There were games last season where McClain flashed the ability to be that up-the-field player from both the under and nose tackle. The coaches have no problem with what Nick Hayden can provide on first and second down, but there were too many snaps where he was part of the package on third down as well. Early in these practices keep a close eye on what the rotation is at that nose, where Jack Crawford and Jeremy Mincey could also see some action as well.

OLB: No matter who you talk to in the front office and coaching staff about Anthony Hitchens, it's all the same – he needs to be on the field. As much nickel as this defense plays, making that happen might be easier said than done.  There is a good chance you will see Sean Lee and Rolando McClain handling those responsibilities, which means Hitchens is on the sidelines. My gut feeling is that Hitchens will initially be worked as a Sam linebacker, but in these practices he could be used as a Will while the coaches and trainers slowly work Sean Lee back into the mix. I am also interested in where Damien Wilson fits in these plans as well. While at Minnesota he played more as a Mike, but he could be better suited in the pros to play as a Will, where he can run and hit from the position. During the rookie mini-camp he lined up at Sam.

ILB: Jasper Brinkley is a veteran linebacker that has made plenty of starts as a Mike in this league. Hitchens might be better suited to play the position, but with him working as the Sam, that puts Brinkley in position to help out. It appears that the coaches are set to play Sean Lee at the Will, so the depth behind Rolando McClain will be important. In studying Brinkley while with the Vikings, he was a two-down player, coming off the field in the nickel situations. In the rookie minicamp Mark Nzeocha took the majority of his snaps as the Mike, as well. Brinkley gives the team protection at the spot while Nzeocha learns on the job. It's another smart move from the front office by helping the defense when it comes time to playing these preseason games.

CB: The forgotten man in all this cornerback talk has been Tyler Patmon. With the addition of Byron Jones and Corey White, it appears that Patmon's role might be much less on the defense. Morris Claiborne has made incredible progress, but the need for extra cornerbacks is still there. Patmon can line up outside, but we have also seen him play in the slot. This is an advantage that he has over White, who is much better in the slot than outside. Another challenge could come from rookies Jason Wilson and Joel Ross – both of whom were solid players in college. It was Wilson that took the majority of his reps inside during the rookie minicamp and did a nice job of handling that role. We could also see that Patmon, Wilson and Ross all play better than White and he is off this roster at the end of the day.

S: I am not sure that we will see Byron Jones taking snaps at safety in these OTA practices initially, but we could see that in training camp. My feeling is that they want him to compete at corner, get comfortable and work from there. There is no question that Jones could play the position if needed, but it's important that they see him work and compete with Brandon Carr in case they have to make a move there. A player that looked good from the rookie minicamp was Tim Scott from North Carolina. On his college tape you can see him playing both as a corner and safety in ACC games and doing a nice job. The advantage to Scott's game is that he could line up as a true free safety, but also in the slot as well. His movement is good as is his intelligence, which makes him a nice fit for the position. Scott might be a bit of a long shot to make the roster but he has the traits to do so.  

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