DALLAS (105.3 THE FAN) — It’s almost like the 2013 season never ended. Just one day into Cowboys OTAs, the team seems to find themselves in the very place they were back in December – without the unquestioned leader of their defense, Sean Lee.

But that doesn’t mean that the Cowboys are done this year, and there’s plenty of reason to think that this defense could be much better than the 2013 version, despite the fact that they’re missing their best player.

Here are 5 reasons why the Cowboys should improve on defense this season :

1. Defensive line is better than last year…The Cowboys have taken a much different approach when it comes to building the defensive line this season. Instead of depending on 4 top guys to make nearly all of the contributions, they’ve now enlisted twice that number – and at least two of them will be able to step in and contribute immediately.

Don’t forget – both Ben Bass and Tyrone Crawford were set to be in the rotation before they went down before the season started. Add in Anthony Spencer, who played just 1 game last season, and Henry Melton, who had a career year under Rod Marinelli with the Bears, and you have to believe that top to bottom the defensive line is much improved.

2. Cowboys record with / without him…No one’s going to deny Sean Lee’s ability on the football field, and I’m not suggesting the Cowboys are better without him; but it’s not as if Sean Lee’s presence has made the difference between winning and losing for the Cowboys in years past. In his 3 year career, the Cowboys are 15-17 with him, and 9-7 without him.

3. Several players (Devonte, Hitchens, Lemon) ready to step in…Everyone’s focusing on Anthony Hitchens to step in and pick up the slack, but have we already forgotten about the players who the Cowboys LOVED last season? Devonte Holloman (a 6th rounder) and Orie Lemon (an undrafted free agent) were both favorites of the coaching staff and made enough strides to see time late in the season after several injuries took hold. Because of that, Holloman had the opportunity to make the play calls for the defense, and now already has a head start on making those same calls this year.

As for Lemon, remember that the Cowboys actually had a 4th round grade on him last year, but opted to risk trying to get him as an undrafted rookie. Yes, neither will be able to be what Sean Lee was…but I will guarantee that they are significant contributors this season.

4. Impact of Rod Marinelli…We all know how bad the defense was last season, but how much of that was a result of Monte Kiffin and his passive approach? Marinelli is much more of an attacker on defense, and his reputation shows that he has the ability to make the players on his defense better. Remember Henry Melton? Now imagine if Marinelli can have that type of impact on just 2 other defensive linemen among this group. A career year for George Selvie, and an immediate impact from rookie 2nd rounder Demarcus Lawrence? Don’t think that’s out of the question.

5. The secondary can’t POSSIBLY be as bad as it was a season ago…Outside of Orlando Scandrick, this secondary got beaten like a drum. But Mo Claiborne was never full healthy all season, and Brandon Carr believed he wasn’t being used properly as an outside corner. Couple that with the fact that the defense was adjusting to an entirely new system, and it’s easy to see why the team struggled so badly on the back end.

In Claiborne’s case, there’s more reason for optimism than ever before – typically it’s not until their third year in the league that cornerbacks start to truly have an impact. Even Revis/Sherman/Talib followed that mold, and if Claiborne can take just a slight step forward, this D could be much improved. In addition, free safety JJ Wilcox has an entire year under his belt, and will be counted on to be a big part of this defense.

There’s no question that the Sean Lee injury is the last thing Cowboys fans wanted to see…But any singular injury, outside of the quarterback, should not be enough to write the season off going forward. Remember, other teams will go through their own injury issues, and the Cowboys still have 10 other players on the defense. The offseason is the season of optimism – don’t ruin the season that starts in September in the first week of June.

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