Dallas defense: 'Hard not to get better'

OXNARD, Calif. -- How's this for optimism about the Dallas Cowboys' defense?

"It's hard not to get better from where we were last year," executive vice president Stephen Jones said, well aware that the Dallas ranked dead last in the league in total yardage.

Of course, the Cowboys lost the three most accomplished players from that defense, releasing defensive end DeMarcus Ware, allowing defensive tackle Jason Hatcher to leave in free agency and seeing linebacker Sean Lee suffer a season-ending knee injury in May.

The Cowboys are confident that their defense is better on paper now than the injury-decimated unit that played the regular-season finale last season. Again, that's pretty faint praise, but the Cowboys made improving their defensive depth an offseason priority after being hit so hard by injuries the previous two seasons.

"If you look at lineup what we are playing with at the last half of last year versus what we hope to start with this year, they are better football players [on this roster]," Jones said. "Guys we were playing a lot in the Philly game weren't good enough to make the [90-man camp roster] much less the 53. We don't even have them back and they were playing in the game."

Nevertheless, there are only two defensive players on the roster who have made Pro Bowl appearances. And both of those one-time Pro Bowlers -- defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Anthony Spencer -- are coming off major knee injuries. Spencer could start the season on the physically unable to perform list, meaning he'd miss at least the first six games.

The Cowboys expect some players who were major disappointments last season, such as linebacker Bruce Carter and cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, to have drastically better years. They're counting on several players who aren't well know, such as linebacker Kyle Wilber, safety J.J. Wilcox and defensive linemen Terrell McClain and Tyrone Crawford, to be significant contributors. And they are counting on the defense to be better coached with Rod Marinelli taking over as defensive coordinator and the Cowboys in their second season running the 4-3.

"We're just excited about our defensive group," head coach Jason Garrett said. "We're going to be a young defensive team. We're not going to have these marquee players we've had in the past -- guys who have played a number of years in the league. We're going to be different that way. ...

"So it's a combination of young guys, guys who are chomping at the bit for an opportunity and us as a staff to allow them to play better. We have a long way to go."

And the only way to go is up.