Gil LeBreton

Cowboys defense progressing — just not sure where

The Dallas Cowboys’ defense is going to be called a lot of things this coming season. Some invariably will come with angry hand gestures.

For now, though, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is calling it “a challenge.”

Coach Jason Garrett calls the defense, “a work in progress.”

Both descriptions tactfully suggest the uphill struggle that awaits the Cowboys’ defensive unit, a bunch that wasn’t all that good last year, either.

Add injuries and suspensions to 2015’s defense, which ranked 17th in the league, and you get a potentially crippling cocktail of opponents’ third-down conversions and eight-minute drives.

The Cowboys don’t have the defensive depth to sustain that. And therein lies Garrett’s and Marinelli’s current Easter egg hunt.

Good news, of sorts, came Monday, as defensive linemen Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins returned to the practice field after being injured. The latter was the team’s No. 3 draft pick this year, while four-year veteran Mayowa was signed from the Raiders.

But that’s what passes as glad news these days.

Three members of the Cowboys’ defense are suspended. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford is back after missing time because of his shoulder and back. Second-year linebacker Damien Wilson was back on the field Monday afternoon after — you can’t make this up — a paint ball accident.

“It was a foolish thing,” Wilson said. “Camp was right around the corner.

“I’m truly blessed that I didn’t lose my eye.”

Next time, Wilson said, he and his buddies will just go to Dave & Buster’s.

“We want all our players ready to go on Day One, taking the maximum number of reps possible each and every day in training camp,” Garrett said. “But that’s not real life.

“We’ve got some veteran players coming back. A few came back last week and a couple more this week, and it will be good to see them out there. One of the by-products of that is that the young players have gotten a lot of work and that’s helped our team.”

That’s the positive way at looking at the problem, if nothing else. When your defense lacks playmakers and is virtually devoid of star power, play repetitions in camp are the most efficient way to get better.

It’s also a departure from the Owner Jones-driven, quick-fix mentality of past seasons.

Conspicuously, though they desperately need a veteran hand to pressure the enemy quarterback, the Cowboys passed on signing Dwight Freeney, 119.5 sacks in his 15-year NFL career. Freeney signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Cowboys, instead, dug in their boot heels and stuck to their plan to look at their young players on defense. This seems like an organizational shift spearheaded by Stephen Jones, the owner’s patient son.

Jerry would have signed Freeney and kicked the tires on Charles Haley and Too Tall Jones. Just sayin’.

At some point, if you have faith in your coaching staff, you have to give playing time to your young players. Let them play. Hope that they improve and grow.

Garrett had mild praise for defensive ends Ryan Russell and David Irving.

“We’re just a work in progress, just like we are at every position on our team,” Garrett said Monday. “Those young guys have gotten lot of work in practice, They’ve gotten a lot of work in games.

“If you’re a young player, and a veteran player who was a starter or a primary backup is not able to be in there, it’s a great opportunity for you to show what you can do. And it’s incumbent on you to be prepared for that opportunity, whether it’s in practice or games.”

For now, that’s the best that Garrett can hope for.

Call the Cowboys’ defense what you want.

The coach prefers “a work in progress.”

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