A: The easy answer is no. The Cowboys don't have a playmaker like Lee. They don't have a pure pass-rusher like Ware. They don't have a defensive tackle like Hatcher. But the Cowboys had the worst defense in the league with those guys playing 39 of a possible 48 combined games.
The Cowboys finished 8-8 with a defense that allowed 415.3 yards per game. They gave up 27 points per game, 26th in the league. And, yet, they had a chance to make the playoffs had they beaten the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17. They lost 24-22 and missed the postseason for the fourth consecutive season.
The feeling going into last season was the defense could not be worse than it was in 2012, which resulted in the firing of Rob Ryan, but it was worse.
There is a thought in Valley Ranch that if this defense can be just a little bit better -- say, improve to 20th in the league -- then 8-8 can turn into 9-7 or 10-6, which could mean a playoff spot in what is the final year of Jason Garrett's contract.
Free-agent acquisition Henry Melton has as many Pro Bowl appearances as Hatcher, but he is coming back from a torn ACL. The pass rush, however, is built on hope and not proven ability, which will affect the secondary's ability to do its job.
The schedule does not help, either. Four of the Cowboys' 10 non-division foes finished in the top 11 in points per game last season. That does not include Indianapolis and quarterback Andrew Luck. In the NFC East, the New York Giants have a new offensive coordinator. The Washington Redskins added an offensive-minded head coach and should have a healthier Robert Griffin III. The Eagles should be even better in Year 2 under Chip Kelly.
Even just being a little bit better might be too much to expect from a defense without Lee, Hatcher and Ware.
-- Todd Archer
Q: What will be the biggest changes in the Giants' offense under new coordinator Ben McAdoo?
A: It's a little too easy to say things will be simpler in the new Giants offense, but that's a good place to start. Kevin Gilbride's offense was a downfield passing game that relied on complicated route concepts and the ability of quarterback Eli Manning and his receivers to identify the same coverages pre-snap. From the wide receivers' perspective, I believe things will be simpler under McAdoo, as they'll be assigned their routes and not asked to choose the right one at the line of scrimmage.
I also expect McAdoo's offense to rely more on shorter passes than Gilbride's did. When Ahmad Bradshaw was healthy and productive, the Giants used screen passes to running backs as much as any team in the league. But outside of that brief period of time, the screen game has been a trouble spot for Manning and the Giants. McAdoo will bring it back, especially if he has David Wilson at his disposal along with Rashad Jennings and Peyton Hillis. McAdoo also is liable to use the tight end more than Gilbride did, though his ability and willingness to do that could rest on the Giants' ability to find a starting-quality tight end out of their current group.
Fundamentally, I think what McAdoo brings with him from Green Bay is an offense rooted in the idea of getting the ball in the hands of its playmakers -- close to the line of scrimmage, if need be -- and asking them to make plays with it. For that reason, I believe Victor Cruz can be even more productive and breathtaking as a slot receiver under McAdoo than he was under Gilbride. Last year notwithstanding, that's saying something.
-- Dan Graziano
Q: Can safety Malcolm Jenkins really make a significant difference in a secondary that allowed the most passing yards in the NFL last season?
A: The immediate answer is "Yes, but ..."
Yes, Jenkins was a quality addition in free agency who can have a major impact on the Eagles' secondary. But the Eagles believe their secondary will be better for reasons other than Jenkins.
It was a bit under the radar, but the Eagles also signed former Dolphins cornerback Nolan Carroll. The coaches like Carroll and think he has a chance to replace one of the starting corners, Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher. With those corners, plus nickel corner Brandon Boykin and backup Roc Carmichael, the Eagles believe they have some depth and flexibility at a position they had to rebuild from scratch last year.
At safety, Jenkins gives them a steadying presence who can help set the defense. A former cornerback, he understands how each coverage affects every defensive back and can adjust his own play accordingly. Jenkins will replace Patrick Chung, who lost his starting job to rookie Earl Wolff last season. Nate Allen will return at the other safety spot, with Wolff providing a now-experienced backup at both positions.
More than any one player, though, the Eagles really believe they have a better understanding of coordinator Bill Davis' defense going into Year 2. That should improve every facet of the defense, starting with the pass rush. Putting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks will help the secondary immensely.
But don't underrate Jenkins' impact. When he started taking notes in a meeting, the other defensive backs in the room immediately realized there was a new standard for professionalism. Hearing that, the Eagles' defensive disarray at times last year suddenly made a lot more sense.
Jenkins can't transform the secondary by himself, but he doesn't have to.
-- Phil Sheridan
Q: Has the Redskins' defense improved enough to make a difference in 2014?
A: Yes ... and no. The Redskins' special teams were horrendous last season, an organizational failure that had a trickle-down impact on the defense. The offense also turned the ball over 34 times in 2013 -- or 20 more than the previous year when the Redskins went 10-6 and made the postseason. Fix those two areas, and the defense will receive an indirect boost because of better field position. The offense also should be more explosive.
But the big letdown involved the pass rush -- one area that should improve this fall. The Redskins hired an outside linebackers coach in Brian Baker who specializes in teaching pass rush techniques. They signed free agent Jason Hatcher to provide an interior pass rush, a missing piece the past two years, and drafted outside linebacker Trent Murphy in the second round. Their presence should enable Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to be more dangerous. In theory.
So why isn't it a slam dunk that the defense will improve? Because Washington didn't fix all of its trouble spots. The result is an aging defense up front and in the secondary. Of the seven starters in those groups, as many as five will be at least 30 years old.
The good: Safety Ryan Clark's experience will help others not only in the secondary but all over the field. Already in practice, he has established himself with his communication skills.
The bad: What do older players such as Clark have left? Also, three of the 30-plus crowd up front will be coming off surgeries -- Hatcher (knee), Barry Cofield (hernia) and Stephen Bowen. Will they be able to hold up?
The Redskins want to be an aggressive, attacking defense. But will their secondary wilt under that stress? If so, will the coaches make the necessary schematic changes?
The inside linebackers were not productive last season, and that must change as well. As of now, third-year player Keenan Robinson will start alongside Perry Riley. Robinson, taking over for retired London Fletcher, has 11 career tackles.
The Redskins have done enough to improve upon last season, when they tied Chicago for 30th in points allowed per game (29.9). Other factors will help. But have they done enough to become serious contenders? They still have a lot of questions to answer.
-- John Keim