Cowboys position series: Defensive ends

The sixth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber

On the bubble: None

Long shots: Cameron Sheffield, Monte Taylor

What’s new?: Ware and Spencer will be playing with their hand on the ground every down for the first time as pros, making the transition from 3-4 outside linebackers to the positions they played in college.

With the possible exception of extremely rare occasions on zone blitzes, they won’t be asked to drop back into pass coverage any more. They won’t have to think nearly as much as they did in the 3-4, especially Rob Ryan’s relatively complicated scheme. Their mission in Monte Kiffin's 4-3: Play free and fly to the football.

On the flip side, opposing offenses won’t have to wonder where Ware or Spencer are coming from. Wade Phillips and Ryan were able to occasionally get them unblocked or matched up one-on-one against a tight end or running back with scheme deception.

Another question: Will tangling with offensive tackles every down take a toll on Ware or Spencer?

Camp competition: Is there any? The starters, two of the highest-paid Cowboys, are set. Backups Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber don’t really have any threats on the roster.

2013 hope: A healthy DeMarcus Ware will get back to being one of the most destructive defensive forces in the NFL instead of the one-armed shadow of himself he was late last season. (You know a guy is great when 11.5 sacks is a down season.)

A hungry Anthony Spencer, playing on a one-year franchise tender for the second straight season, will be as good as he was a year ago. He might have been an alternate, but Spencer earned his first Pro Bowl trip by racking up 11 sacks – five more than his previous career high – and continuing to excel against the run.

Crawford and Wilber, a couple of 2012 mid-round picks, need to at least be good enough to make the coaches comfortable spelling the vets. The bar is actually set a lot higher for the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Crawford, who could also get some playing time inside. Some at Valley Ranch believe Crawford has star potential.

Future forecast: The Cowboys are counting on Ware, who turns 31 in training camp, to be a defensive cornerstone for at least a few more years. Due to count $16 million against the cap, it’s a good bet that the perennial Pro Bowl pass-rusher will restructure his seven-year, $78 million contract for the fourth consecutive offseason.

It appears nearly certain that this will be Spencer’s final season with the Cowboys after a mutual decision to halt talks about a long-term contract extension well in advance of the July 15 deadline for franchise players. The sides made precious little, if any, progress over the last 18 months.

The Cowboys’ front office, which has never been shy about paying big to keep players the franchise developed, might not be able to show such restraint if not for the optimism about Crawford’s future. Bidding farewell in free agency to a starter who had an eight-figure salary and replacing him with a talented young player who isn’t yet a millionaire is a heck of a way to help a franchise crawl out of salary-cap hell.

It’s on Crawford to perform well enough in 2013 to make the Cowboys comfortable with this scenario next offseason.