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Will There Be Any Feel Good Stories For The Dallas Defense?

If the Cowboys are able to make any improvement on defense this season, they will need some unexpected heroes to step up. Here are some players that would make great stories if they come through.

Will Ahmad Dixon be part of the solution for Dallas?
Will Ahmad Dixon be part of the solution for Dallas?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the Dallas Cowboys 2014 training camp in Oxnard now officially over, the team has made a lot of progress - but in far too many ways, it is no better off than it was at the start. Most of those areas where things did not go as well as hoped involve the defense. Due to an unrelenting string of injuries (again) most of the questions the team had coming into camp are still left without answers.

The normally upbeat (some would say active team promoter) Mickey Spagnola of has even joined the ranks of the concerned. In his latest post he outlines all the defensive players who have missed serious practice time or already been lost for the season.

But at this point, for those of us watching the past 3½ weeks of training camp, there would be more confidence in the quarterback's surgically-repaired back then there is in this defense, and to me that's a mouthful. I've seen Romo throw the ball, move around in the pocket. But I've yet to see all 11 projected defensive starters on the field at the same time.

And truth be known, I'm not sure after 3½ weeks of training camp the Cowboys actually know who all those 11 starters will be. This is a work in progress, a lot of moving parts, and brother aren't you glad the season opener still is 23 days away, and that there still are three more preseason games to play to figure all this out instead of maybe having only two preseason games as some are inclined to insist is all that's needed.

The camp stakes have been pulled up, but this defense has yet to develop any sturdy roots.

For this D to exceed the almost nonexistent expectations everyone has, some unexpected heroes are going to have to step up. Some combination of overcoming serious issues, recovering from injury, and just being better than anyone realized will have to take place. And it has to be several players that step up, because one or two are not going to be enough.

Even if the Cowboys defense just manages to crawl up out of the cellar of NFL defenses (which may be enough, given the way the offensive line has come together and how the skill players have looked), there will likely be some great stories in the group. And there are more candidates for that on the Dallas roster this year than I can ever recall seeing.

Here are some players who are candidates for those feel good stories this year.

How is this guy even alive? The "mystery illness" Amobi Okoye was recovering from is no longer a mystery. What is hard to grasp is how he can be on an NFL roster at all. In 2013, he contracted anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. I had never heard of this. Of course, no one had before 2007, when the disease was first discovered. I don't know anything about it, other than it affects the brain. Oh, and two significant words are associated with it: Potentially fatal. And possibly as early as Monday, Okoye is putting on his uniform and joining the Cowboys at practice.

He's going to do all this 17 months after he was felled by a rare disease, went into a coma and was left with a 145-day gap in his memory.

This is Hollywood-level dramatic story stuff. If Okoye does make it onto the roster, and is able to make a contribution, expect to see this covered during almost every Cowboys game.

How is this guy back in the league? Rolando McClain did not suffer from any dangerous disease, just some kind of mental issue. He has superb physical skills and all signs are that the coaching staff and ownership are really pulling for him to take over the starting MLB job at some point this season (the San Francisco 49ers game would be a nice time, but may be far too optimistic). He has shown in practices that he can be intimidating and fast.

Now, if only he can keep his motivation. It seems almost odd that the team would take a chance on him, except for two things. First, they went through something similar with Cole Beasley, who left camp his rookie year and had to be talked into coming back. Now, he is a key element of the offense as a possession receiver, and indications are that Scott Linehan may have even more in store for him. Second, Sean Lee is out for the season. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

If McClain does wind up the starting MLB, and plays anywhere close to what he seems capable of, then he could be a comeback of the year candidate himself.

Coming back from injury. This is one long list. It is pretty much certain not all will make it - but even a few could be big for Dallas.

  • Henry Melton. The big one. The key free agent signing. The Rod Marinelli guy everyone hopes will make this front four work. Recovering from ACL surgery, he now has a strained groin. He may very well be starting the first week of the season - with no appreciable playing time in the pre-season games. Some veterans make that work. But it is scary to put your faith in him under those circumstances.
  • Anthony Spencer. If you thought last year his career was over, you have a lot of company. Me, for sure. Now, word is that he is coming along faster than almost anyone expected and may not go on the PUP list, which just about everyone predicted. If he is able to come back in the first three or four weeks, even at less than 100% due to conditioning, he could be a major boost to the pass rush.
  • Tyrone Crawford. Ever since the departure of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, Crawford has loomed large in the plans for the defensive line. He went down the first day of training camp last year, and his return has been widely anticipated. Tony Romo singled him out as the breakout player of the year. So far, he has been all right, but not exactly the savior up front. The team needs some production out of him.
  • George Selvie. Another groin strain. (Hopefully, groins are not this year's hamstrings. Which is just an anatomically disturbing thought.) He missed the first pre-season game, so hopefully we can see the same player that came in and did so much last year.
  • Terrell McClain. After really showing up during the off-season, he has been out with the dreaded high ankle sprain for most of camp. His absence has definitely hurt.
  • Morris Claiborne. He is in his third year with the team. He has only played in two preseason games so far. He is expected to miss another against the Baltimore Ravens. All the signs are that he is poised to justify his selection in the first round - if he can just stay on the field.
  • Brandon Carr. Although not injured, the sad loss of his mother had much the same effect. But he is now back, and healthy. He just needs to get his conditioning back, and then he needs to prove he is worth the oversized paycheck he gets from Dallas.
  • Matt Johnson. There is nothing more to say here. And precious little hope.

Rookies that can surprise? DeMarcus Lawrence is out for most of the season, and almost certainly will not be able to help as much as was hoped when he comes back after sitting so long in recovery. But some other first year players might step up. These are the ones I have noticed.

  • Anthony Hitchens. If you think he has been rather quiet so far in camp, you are almost correct. The coverage has been subdued. Jeff Sullivan said he was flying under the radar, but is showing good ability at all three linebacking positions.
  • Ahmad Dixon. He is a bit of an overlap with the injured list, with a concussion in the San Diego Chargers pre-season game. But he also was the clear standout defensively, and he has been cleared to play against the Ravens (although he was waved off the field by Jason Garrett when he came out late for the final practice Friday before the Cowboys departed Oxnard).
  • Terrance Mitchell. He has gotten lots of good notices in camp. With Scandrick out, he is looking very likely to make the roster.
  • Ken Bishop, Dartwan Bush, and Davon Coleman. With the need for pass rushers so huge, all three have a chance. All have flashed something. Now we need to see if any of them can step up on a regular basis.

Players we just didn't expect anything from.

  • Justin Durant. All those who were really pulling for him to get cut can go to the Corner of Shame. It's easy to find. Just look for me standing there. Outside of Orlando ScandrickDurant may have had the best camp of any defender on the team. And unlike Mr. Molly, Durant is eligible to play the first week of the season. Whether or not Rolando McClain ever takes the MLB job, Durant seems poised to have a major role.
  • Kenneth Boatwright. Right now, he is looking like the best candidate to become the George Selvie of 2014, a free agent signed because of a crying need for healthy bodies who may bring more to the table than anyone planned on.
  • Jeremy Mincey. Most observers were a bit underwhelmed when he was signed as a free agent. Now, the team may need him to step up with the difficulty in keeping anyone else healthy.
  • Nick Hayden. Roundly derided for his lackluster performance last season. The team keeps trying to find someone to take his roster spot - but he keeps lining up as the starter. With this bunch, durability is its own virtue. Now, if he just could prove the critics wrong and get some pressure up the middle.

If, at this point, you are thinking "That is just about an entire defense on that list", then you get it. There are so many opportunities for players to step up and excel, and so many candidates to do just that. Most will not come through - but imagine if just four or five of the names I listed above turn into quality players for this season. It would make a huge difference in the way this defense performs.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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