When talk turns to reasons why the Dallas Cowboys will automatically improve next season from last year's 4-12 mark, it usually concerns the return to health of quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant.
Romo and Bryant _ the team's two best offensive players and Pro Bowl regulars _ missed a combined 19 games last season with injuries so there is no question the Cowboys will be better with them back in the fold.
But not to be overlooked when listing reasons why the Cowboys will be much improved is the return of cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp.
The eight-year veteran was the team's best defensive player in 2014 and his absence was a huge blow to the secondary last year.
Scandrick was back with the Cowboys when the team officially kicked off its off-season program on Monday.
He has not yet been fully cleared to return, but is ahead of schedule in his rehab and should be ready for training camp and the start of the season.
"I'm doing great,'' Scandrick said. "Phenomenal. We have a great plan in place, and I expect to be ready for training camp. We're not going to rush it. We knew all along it was a 10 to 12 month process with the injury I had.
"By the grace of God, I'm ahead of schedule. I'd hate to come so far and get out there a little bit too early. I expect to be a full participant, play 16 games and practice every day. I don't want to have to manage this injury and skip out on practices once the season starts because the knee is tired."
Scandrick said there were times in the process when he didn't think he could make it back. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament his right knee.
But Scandrick persevered with the help of athletic trainer and rehab specialist Britt Brown and vows to make this the best season of his career.
"It will be eight-and-a-half months this Thursday,'' Scandrick said. "There were times I sat on the coach and didn't know I'd ever be able to do this again. It's still a work in progress, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. I'm excited, more about this season than any season at any stage in my career in any sport. I'm eager to prove to my teammates, the organization, the fans and the media I can be the same player if not better.''
An example of Scandrick's dedication has been his presence in Dallas and at the team's Valley Ranch headquarters since the end of the season. He normally returns to his hometown of Los Angeles in the off-season to spend time with his family and work with his own personal trainer.
But Scandrick said he owed it to the Cowboys to stick around and work with strength coach Mike Woicik and Brown because of how the team has supported him throughout his career.
"They invested a lot in me," Scandrick said. "Last year, I was fortunate enough to have my contract addressed with multiple years remaining. To go out and get hurt in training camp like I did, it was tough. I just feel like I owe to them to be here and be committed.This organization has been nothing but great to me for the first eight years of my career, through my growing pains, through my ups and downs. So I'm going to give them everything that I got."