<
>

Cowboys gear up for youth movement

Not long after arriving at Valley Ranch last year, Ronald Leary became a favorite of Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones.

Leary, a guard from Memphis, impressed offensive line coach Bill Callahan in a personal workout during the draft process. There was a feeling that perhaps the Cowboys had found another undrafted free agent who could become a future starter, much like they did with Miles Austin and Tony Romo

The biggest area of concern with Leary was his knees. Leary was diagnosed last year with OCD, a joint condition where a piece of cartilage, along with a thin layer of the bone beneath it, comes loose from the end of a bone. Several NFL teams backed away from Leary fearing his knee wouldn't hold up long term.

Leary's knees aren't a problem in the short term, and with the Cowboys now bent on using younger players, he has to play.

Now.

Leary can't sit around on the practice squad like he did last season. He has to either become a starter or at least be on the active roster for 17 weeks in the fall.

Last year, Callahan noted the improvement in Leary's play. Leary got better with his hand placement, quickness, power and overall understanding of the NFL game. He got better in practices by going up against the Cowboys' veteran defensive front, and from studying with the group. Leary also quickly realized the college game is different from the NFL game.

Very different.

"I've learned a lot from Coach Callahan in this last year, and I've learned a lot from the players on the team on how to be a professional," Leary said. "This is a job, (and) I think I've grown as a person."

The Cowboys need Leary to grow as a player, too.

After seeing the way the run game performed last season, it was clear the offensive front needed an influx of new talent. Dallas drafted a center/guard in Travis Frederick in the first round of this year's draft. And young players such as David Arkin, Kevin Kowalski and Leary will compete for a spot on the 53-man roster.

Veterans Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau remain the starters at guard. How long they stay there is up to players like Leary.

In years past, the Cowboys kept younger players on the sidelines while vets such as Roy Williams, Zach Thomas, Keith Brooking, Marc Colombo and Bradie James got the majority playing time.

Things are changing now.

It's a young man's game. And with a new collective bargaining agreement in place that gives veterans more money, NFL teams are looking at younger and cheaper alternatives to move up the depth chart.

Cowboys officials mentioned that the seven draft picks from this year's class have the chance to be starters. Frederick most likely will start at center. Second-round pick Gavin Escobar is penciled in to take over as the No. 2 tight end over James Hanna, who was drafted last year. Fifth-round selection Joseph Randle will start if something happens to DeMarco Murray.

"We made a big commitment in this draft to get guys on the field and use them," Jones said. "We've always wanted to do that. It's the way to go. I think the way we drafted, we're going to give these guys every opportunity to get a spot on this roster."

Life in the NFL is short for players, and coaches' jobs are just as precious, so if moving young players into the starting lineup means saving it, you do it.

Leary might not start this season, but his progress is being measured differently now. Last year, Leary was judged as someone still learning his way around the NFL game. He was also learning the Cowboys way.

In Year 2, Leary is a veteran, or is expected to be. During the three-day rookie minicamp, Leary looked the part. He was quick off the ball and moved defenders out of the way. He wasn't perfect, but his understanding of the offense and his role helped him.

Now Leary, whom the Cowboys moved to the active roster on Dec. 22 so they could keep him after the Oakland Raiders claimed him off the practice squad, has to translate that to a full-time role on the 53-man roster.

"I don't think too much about that," Leary said about his roster spot. "It's too early to be talking about that. I'm just trying to get better."