Cowboys better, but so is division

Teams in the NFC East upgraded their talent level this offseason, and Dallas Cowboys officials did their best to keep up.

The Cowboys needed to improve a team that was swept by two divisional rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, and didn't score a touchdown against the other despite beating the Washington Redskins in their first meeting of 2011.

You can bring up the Cowboys' defensive problems all you want, but the offense has issues as well.

Dallas scored only five rushing touchdowns last season, tied for 30th in the NFL. That's a terrible number in a division known for running the football. Philadelphia scored 20 rushing touchdowns and New York 17. Washington, like Dallas, struggled with eight rushing touchdowns.

The Cowboys improved the offensive line by signing veteran linemen Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau in free agency. Despite success with fullback Tony Fiammetta last season, the Cowboys elected not to bring him back and instead picked up Lawrence Vickers in free agency.

"There's definitely excitement, definitely change," tackle Doug Free said. "You never know what you've got until you get out on the field."

Still, the biggest weakness for the Cowboys was the secondary play.

Free-agent Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in the draft, add strength and depth to a cornerback unit that allowed big plays and suffered from too much miscommunication.

A full offseason learning defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's system should ease fans' concerns of more problems in the future. But the NFC East is getting better.

Washington drafted Robert Griffin III with the second pick of the draft and signed wide receivers Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon in free agency to improve the offense.

Philadelphia sought improvement with its offensive line. The Eagles signed three players in free agency and drafted Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox with the 12th pick of the draft.

The Giants added depth to the tight end position by signing former Cowboy Martellus Bennett to a one-year deal and using a first-round selection on Virginia Tech running back David Wilson.

"This will always be the toughest division in the NFL," Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "The NFC East, we run the ball better than any division. We pass the ball better than any division and usually a team that comes out of the NFC East is a team that usually wins the thing."

Now, for the mailbag:

Q: What will be the role of Dan Connor, and will it affect Bruce Carter's playing time? Was Conner signed just for a backup plan if Carter doesn't pan out? -- Shawn (Bloomsburg, Pa.)

A: It's too early to determine who starts alongside Sean Lee at inside linebacker, but the early guess is Carter will get snaps on third down. Connor is an experienced linebacker who called the signals in Carolina, just like Lee did with the Cowboys. If Connor and Lee start, that adds experience to the unit. Carter has some quickness to rush the passer if needed, but we need to see more of him to determine just what he means to the Cowboys.

Q: Will Jason Garrett balance out the offense more this year because he's given away too many games with pass-happy play calling since he's been in Dallas as coordinator and coach? Before the Monday night game against Washington last year, he called running a waste of plays. I think Wade Phillips would still be the coach if he could have hired his own offensive coordinator because Garrett has wasted the offensive talent there for years. -- Rondricus Reese (Atlanta)

A: I disagree that Garrett wasted the offensive talent. Tony Romo had a career-high quarterback rating last season and Miles Austin has been to two Pro Bowls under Garrett's play calling. DeMarco Murray emerged as a force, and the Cowboys discovered replacements at tackle for aging players. The Cowboys got Wade Phillips fired because of their poor 2010 start, not so much because of Garrett. Should the Cowboys run the ball more? Of course. But if Garrett doesn't believe in the running backs at his disposal, he won't do it. I think he believes in Murray, so expect the team to run more often in 2012.

Q: Does Matt Johnson have a reasonable shot at taking the starting safety job from Brodney Pool? -- Darren Larson (Sioux Falls, SD)

A: Johnson made plays on the ball at Eastern Washington. It was nice to see him get an interception at the rookie minicamp last week. Pool is a veteran, signed to a one-year deal, and he will start alongside Gerald Sensabaugh. I don't expect anything to change for now. It's too early to give Johnson a chance at starting without seeing some preseason games. I do like the selection, though.

Q: The Cowboys' battle for the third, fourth and fifth receiver spots on the active roster will be fierce. If [Kevin] Ogletree doesn't translate the mental part of the game to the field early, he's a goner. Who do you predict will grab those spots (Danny Coale, Raymond Radway and Andre Holmes)? -- Neil Young (Richmond, Va.)

A: Kevin Ogletree has gone through hardships this offseason. His brother was shot in New York. The Cowboys' selection of a wideout in the draft seems to have inspired him. Jerry Jones noticed Ogletree has picked up some muscle, and that could mean he's rededicated himself to his workouts. Ogletree's biggest problem is consistency, and he needs to work on that to get increased playing time. I'm interested in seeing Andre Holmes emerge as a threat.

Q: Even though Mike Jenkins is supposedly asking to be traded, wouldn't it be in his and the Cowboys' best interests if he played out the season and then signed a free-agent contract after? Also, which undrafted free agent is most likely to make the 53-man roster? -- James B (Pittsburgh)

A: I agree Jenkins needs to show up to the organized team activities next week as a statement to his commitment to the Cowboys. I think he's upset about the Cowboys' drafting a corner, Morris Claiborne, and signing Brandon Carr in free agency. Jenkins is a good player, but he's got a few things working against him right now. He's in the final year of his contract and recovering from shoulder surgery. It's hard to trade a player like this, especially until he proves he's fully healthy. If Jenkins plays, even as the No. 3 corner, he can still get a nice contract from another team.

Among the undrafted free agents, I'm interested in seeing wide receiver Saalim Hakim as a possible signee. He's got speed, and while he doesn't have NFL experience, he did play in the UFL last year. Former NFL coach Jim Fassel recommended him to the Cowboys.