So far, the Cowboys have "lost" three players to free agency - Danny McCray (CHI), Corvey Irvin (DET) and Jason Hatcher (WAS). They also released four veteran players - DeMarcus Ware (DEN), Miles Austin (--), Phil Costa (IND) and Everette Brown (--) - to create some salary-cap space. Does that sound like a lot?
Compare that to the Seahawks, who lost seven players from their Super Bowl-winning team (WR Golden Tate, OL Breno Giacomini and Paul McQuistan, DT Clinton McDonald, CBs Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond, and S Chris Maragos), and released three more (DEs Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, WR Sidney Rice), and suddenly the Cowboys' total doesn't appear quite as staggering anymore.
But staggering or not, there's no question that the Cowboys will miss the likes of Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware. But will they also miss their production?
Let's take a look at the seven players the Cowboys have "lost" so far this year from a statistical point of view. Here's the combined 2013 regular season production from those seven players:
244 receiving yards
5 passes defensed
3 forced fumbles
1 fumble recoveries
On offense, an argument can be made that the offense will be improved without Austin. After starting off strong with 15 receptions on 19 targets for the first three games of the season, an injured Austin would only record nine more receptions on 27 targets in the remaining eight games he played in - and looked completely disconnected from the game at times.
On defense, there's little doubt that the Henry Melton/Terrell McClain duo coupled with Jeremy Mincey will make up the lost starts and snaps. But will they also be able to make up the lost sack totals? More importantly, will they be able to beat them? Because simply matching last year's team total of 34 sacks (ranked 27th in the league) will not be enough to engineer the defensive turnaround the Cowboys are looking for.
Overall though, while the losses weigh heavily on the team in terms of veteran leadership and other intangibles, making up those production totals from last year is not as daunting a task as it may initially appear.
Some of the answers may already be on the team. Terrance Williams will be the number two wide receiver next to Dez Bryant, while Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris should also fill in ably. Additionally, expectations are high for tight end Gavin Escobar in his second year, the running backs may be even more involved in the passing game under Scott Linehan than before, and there are only so many balls that can go around. On the defensive line, the Cowboys have high hopes for Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass, and also have some vague hopes for the return of Anthony Spencer.
Another part of the answers will have to come via the draft, where the Cowboys are widely expected to draft a defensive lineman or two, and could be looking at wide receivers as well. Also, the Cowboys have been shrewd bargain hunters in the past. Think of when some of the highest impact Cowboys free agents were signed recent years: DE George Selvie in July, WR Laurent Robinson in September, OG Brian Waters in September to name just a few.
Coach Garrett recognized last week that the key to an improved 2014 season will be the defense:
"We just have to play better defense," Garrett told NFL Network this week at the owners meetings in Orlando. "We’ve played well on offense over the last number of years. We just have to improve our defense."
"Losing a guy like DeMarcus Ware or a guy like Jason Hatcher to free agency, those are hard pills to swallow. Those guys have been good football players for us for a long, long time. But we felt like those were the best organizational decisions for us, for now and for going forward."
"Now we have to make the next best decisions, get some younger guys in there to replace them, rely on the leadership of guys like Sean Lee, Brandon Carr, some of the other guys. Those are good football players. We feel like those are the core of our defense right now. We have to get better on defense. Hopefully we’ll do that this coming year."
And to be successful in 2014, the Cowboys need to do more than just replace Hatcher's and Ware's production, they need to exceed it - and by quite a bit. They probably won't be able to do it just by plugging in two new guys as their replacements. But can they do it as a team?