Can The Dallas Cowboys Defense Get "Markedly Better" in 2014?

Can Rod Marinelli whip his rushmen into shape? - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Will the new players on defense help get the defense back on track or will that be a task for the returning veterans?

Nick Eatman of Dallas Cowboys.com wrote an article yesterday about the new Cowboys facility in Frisco. At the end of the article, almost as an afterthought, he adds that when Stephen Jones was asked if the defense can get "markedly better" in 2014, Jones cited the number of players in uniform at the end of the season who aren't on the roster this year as a reason why the defense will be better.

"They were playing games and we were counting on them to beat Philadelphia and now they’re [not] good enough to make the 90 (man roster)," Jones said. "I think that tells you a little bit where we were."

That's an interesting statement by Jones because it seems to imply that a large number of players who suited up for the Cowboys that day are no longer on the roster. And that in turn implies that the Cowboys will be a lot better on defense because the Cowboys replaced a whole bunch of players on defense who wouldn't be good enough for this year's roster.

It's a good thing the NFL publishes gamebooks for every NFL game, because this will allow us to look at exactly who played in that Week 17 game against the Eagles, and for how many snaps.

Here's a look at the starters, the backups and the non-active defensive players on the roster for that final Week 17 game. The players remaining on the 2014 roster are marked in green, players no longer on the roster are marked in yellow, Sean Lee is amrked in red because he probably won't play this season. "ST" denotes players who played on special teams but did not record a defensive snap.

Cowboys defensive snapcounts vs. Eagles, Week 17, 2013
Starters Snaps Backups Snaps Not Active
LDE 99 G.Selvie 44 S 27 J.Wilcox 31 S 23 J.Hamilton
DT 96 N.Hayden 45 DE 51 K.Wilber 28 LB 50 S.Lee
DT 97 J.Hatcher 42 DT 69 C.Irvin 25 LB 56 M.Wilson
RDE 94 D.Ware 49 DT 70 F.Kearse 22 CB 20 B.Webb
MLB 57 D.Holloman 67 DE 92 J.Wynn 22 LB 98 O.Lemon
WLB B.Carter 67 DE 71 E.Brown 19 LB 59 E.Sims
LCB B.Carr 67 LB 53 C.Lawrence ST
RCB 32 O.Scandrick 66 CB 26 S.Moore ST
FS 42 B.Church 61 S 40 D.McCray ST
SS 38 J.Heath 42 DE 55 E.Jones ST
CB 24 M.Claiborne 40

  • Of the 27 defensive players on the roster for the Eagles game, 19 remain with the Cowboys to this day.
  • Nine of the 11 starters are returning this year, and while not all of those nine players will get a starting spot in 2014, all nine will be competing for one.
  • Outside of Hatcher and Ware, players no longer on the roster contributed just 88 of 737 total defensive snaps, about 12%. If we include Hatcher and Ware, that number climbs to 179 snaps or 24%.

Overall, this doesn't look like there were a truckload of players on last year's roster who are not "good enough" for this year's roster. Sure, the backup D-line is probably going to be a lot better. And perhaps they'll find somebody better than Nick Hayden for the one-technique spot. But replacing Ware and Hatcher is no small task, and simply penciling in some new names at those spots won't improve your roster one bit.

At linebacker, Wilber, Holloman and Carter could very well be the starters this year, and they all played in last year's season finale. All three starting corners are returning. And at safety Wilcox looks likely to start over Heath, but if we include Jakar Hamilton in the mix, even last year's four safeties are likely going to be this year's four safeties.

Sure, the backups for the front seven are likely going to be better than last year's backups. But while there are many reasons to believe that the Cowboys defense will be better in 2014, new personnel is probably not one of them. If the Cowboys want an improved defensive performance, they are going to have to get it from their returning players, not from the new guys.

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