The whole season last year was full of unfulfilled expectations for the fans of the Dallas Cowboys. Many players did not meet with what was expected, and there were quite a few who felt the wrath of the Blogging The Boys community. Others were unable to demonstrate their abilities due to injury issues that impacted or eliminated the ability for them to perform. As I stated in the opening, a new season is about to begin and with it comes an opportunity for those who struggled to gain some redemption. What remains to be seen is which, if any, of the players will seize the opportunity and live up to the standards we have for our beloved Cowboys. Let's take a look at some of the defensive players who could take a tremendous leap forward this season.
Much was expected from the second-year lineman last season before he was lost early in training camp. Crawford was expected to be a key contributor along Rod Marinelli's defensive line last season, but those hopes ended when the 2012 third-round draft pick suffered a torn left Achilles tendon during the first practice session of training camp. As a rookie, Crawford had shown potential, appearing in all 16 games, and his abilities and progress prompted former teammate Jason Hatcher to refer to him as a future perennial All-Pro.
Hatcher is not the only one to see the opportunity that stands before Crawford; Dallas quarterback Tony Romo has already told the media that his 2014 pick to break out is the former defensive lineman from Boise State.
"I think Tyrone Crawford is going to be a guy that will be shocking to a lot of people. I think if we would have had him last year, it would have been a very different defensive unit. I think without people knowing it, we’re getting a couple of first or second-round guys with him coming back from injury. I think he’s the guy that stands out to me as the first guy that’s going to be very, very difficult to deal with for offenses." - Tony Romo
The Cowboys traded away a second-round pick in 2012 for the opportunity to select Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick in that year's draft. Acclaimed to be the best corner prospect since some guy named Deion Sanders, the player who quickly became known as "pick six" among the Dallas faithful has never quite lived up to what is expected of a player who is so highly touted. Some of the can be attributed to the fact that Claiborne has faced injuries in each of his prior two NFL seasons, but there is a time for the rubber to meet the road. Morris Claiborne will be given every opportunity to secure his place in the Dallas secondary this season, but he has to step up and take the role that the team has in mind for him.
In an attempt to prevent injury from being a factor this season, Morris has committed himself to adding strength to his frame. The other part of the story is he does need to figure out a way to adapt to the game at its highest level and his role within that. According to Jeff Sullivan, the former All-American from LSU is working hard to meet the expectations set forth for him.
Claiborne has added some bulk and strength this offseason and couldn’t be more motivated to live up to the expectations that come with being such a high draft pick. Whether he can stay healthy and produce, that’s still uncertain.
As Sully points out, it was not just Dallas who viewed Claiborne as the next outstanding shutdown corner when he came out of school. Almost everyone who watched him play had the same evaluation of him, and it is a challenge to believe that everyone could have misread his potential so badly. Still, it is upon Mo's shoulders to prove that he is a NFL-caliber cornerback.
Johnson's issues with his health have progressed to the point where he is something of a running joke among Cowboys fans. To steal a phrase from my esteemed colleague on the front page, OCC, who reviewed Johnson shortly after the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round of the 2012 draft, Johnson has the prototypical athleticism that all NFL teams are looking for in their safeties. The Cool One, as he is wont to due, detailed for us exactly what made Johnson so exceptional as a prospect.
Matt Johnson exceeds peer average in all three critical drills. From a purely athletic point of view, there is no reason to doubt that Matt Johnson could eventually become a starter in the NFL. Of the slightly more than 20 safety prospects, only one other prospect EPA'd in all three drills: FS Trenton Robinson out of Michigan State, who ended up with the 49ers. Harrison Smith, the 29th pick in the draft, only EPA'd in two drills, Mark Barron did not complete the short shuttle or three cone at his Pro Day.
Even more than Claiborne, Johnson has had trouble getting on the field. Short of a brief pre-season appearance, where he did show the ability that we were told to expect of him, Matt Johnson has yet to actually see any time as a professional football player. All the talent in the world is useless if the player cannot actually appear in a single game, and for two years Matt Johnson has failed to do that. Still, at what he has cost the team, it was worth while to take a gamble that he would finally become a productive football player. Perhaps this will be the season.
Wilcox looked ready to break out as a rookie, good enough to allow the Cowboys to part ways with Will Allen. Unfortunately, once he was promoted to a starting role, life and football went haywire for Wilcox. The young man lost his mother and further saw his short-term football future hampered by a sprain to his knee. For the rookie out of Georgia Southern, who had only one year of experience playing safety to begin with, it was too much. Eventually J J lost his starting slot to UDFA rookie Jeff Heath.
The Cowboys still have great faith that Wilcox will rebound and have a breakthrough year in 2014. One of his biggest supporters is team owner Jerry Jones, who sees J.J. (along with Barry Church) as the anchor of the Cowboys secondary. The team does not expect the setback he experienced in 2013 to have any residual impact on the upcoming season.
"J.J. Wilcox had an outstanding training camp, and the day his mother passed, he was actually promoted to be the starter. Everybody deals with adversity in different ways, especially a heartfelt loss like losing your mother. No one knows how anyone’s going to respond to that, and obviously he was very close to his mother who had been sick, and had taken very wonderful care of her and was obviously just a terrible, gut-wrenching loss for him. I just think it took him a while to respond. But toward the end of the year, I think we were starting to see flashes of the J.J. that we saw in camp." - Jerry Jones
Expected to be the lynch-pin of the Monte Kiffin led defense, the former North Carolina linebacker was a major disappointment in 2013. Unfortunately, when he was actually on the field, Carter appeared to be lost and confused. Perhaps it was simply not knowing his responsibilities, or maybe he took the transition too lightly. Either way, Bruce Carter, for the first time in his football career at any level, found himself benched for a veteran journeyman who is no longer on the team, Ernie Sims. Like Wilcox, Jerry Jones has faith that Carter can rebound.
"He’s working at it, though. We saw things, there’s an old adage, if you’ve seen him do it a few times, you know they can do it at least and you go from there. We know he can do what this defense calls for and be outstanding. We have some real reasons to be excited about him and certainly he’d be the first to say that he had some things that he’d like to take back.
"Overall, he’s got a future here … and that’s a positive. It’s not a condition, he’s going to become more of a pro and more understanding about the kind of commitment and the kind of detail and preparation it takes and he’ll be a lot better for it. He’s got the other stuff that nobody can coach, and that is speed and physical assets." - Jerry Jones
With the change in defensive philosophy having been in place for a year and a new defensive coordinator in place, one who has a reputation for being an outstanding teacher, there will be opportunities for these players to step forth and make a major mark on the defense that the Cowboys put on the field, not just in 2014 , but into the future. The field is wide open and for anyone wanting to establish himself, the watchword in the defensive meeting rooms will be "Carpe Diem!" The only thing left to determine will be which man or men actually step up and seize the day for Dallas.
Now it is your turn, which Dallas defender do you expect to see turn the corner this season and revitalize his career?