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FA Series: Third Linebacker Spot Still Up For Grabs
IRVING, Texas – With free agency beginning on March 12, the Cowboys have several decisions to make regarding the improvement of this team.
Last year, they were extremely aggressive in free agency, signing seven players, including Brandon Carr, Kyle Orton and Dan Connor in the first two days of the signing period.
Don’t expect that kind of frenzy this year. In fact, it could be rather slow depending on how much cap room the Cowboys have by March 12.
But over the next week, all three DallasCowboys.com staff writers will help break down five different positions that could be intriguing for the Cowboys in free agency.
Today, we’ll continue with outside linebacker.
What They Have:
When the Cowboys made the switch to a 4-3 scheme, head coach Jason Garrett said the decision came down to personnel. However, Garrett did make a somewhat surprising statement at the combine two weeks ago in Indy when he said both Bruce Carter and Sean Lee would compete for the starting job at middle linebacker. Obviously, the other one
would play weakside outside linebacker. Still, it was expected for a while that Carter would start there and it’s likely how it will end up. But the other spot is also uncertain right now. The Cowboys could play Alex Albright at that spot, but the versatile pass-rusher played defensive end in college. So the switch to a 4-3 linebacker might not be an easy transition. The Cowboys currently have Dan Connor on the roster but it’s been speculated he could be a salary-cap cut. Another interesting player in the mix could be Kyle Wilber, who played outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme in college. At 6-4, 246, Wilber has the body type to play linebacker in a 4-3, assuming he doesn’t put on the normal weight and muscle that typically occurs with players between their first and second seasons.
- Nick Eatman
Who’s Out There:
There’s no reason to doubt Lee or Carter will be on the field next season, but that third linebacker spot is very much up for grabs, perhaps even by one of the handful of free agent linebackers available. The problem is most of the available, talented free agent linebackers are coming from a 3-4 scheme. Shaun Phillips spent his previous nine seasons as an outside 3-4 linebacker in San Diego and registered 9.5 sacks last season, but he’s roughly the same size as Spencer, so the Cowboys may feel he doesn’t fit in the new 4-3 system. The same goes for Connor Barwin from the Texans and Calvin Pace from the Jets, both of whom are actually bigger than Spencer and Phillips. A few more intriguing names are Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith, Minnesota’s Erin Henderson and Oakland’s Philip Wheeler. Smith dealt with injuries and only played in two games last season, but he was a reliable player the previous eight seasons, playing in at least 14 games every year prior to 2012. Henderson and Wheeler are both coming off their most productive seasons in the NFL, with Henderson finishing with 79 combined tackles and three sacks from the weak side and Wheeler registering 109 combined tackles and three sacks from the strong side.
- Rowan Kavner
What They’ll Do:
As the Cowboys transition into the 4-3 defense from the 3-4, there are two key pieces currently on the roster that should make a huge impact in how well it will function at linebacker – Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are those pieces. I really believe this is a great scheme change for these two for a couple of different reasons. The defense requires reaction and speed, which Lee and Carter both have as traits. What Monte Kiffin wants in this scheme is the ability to get bodies up the field controlling the run and getting offenses in bad down and distance situations, then unleashing his pass rush on you on second and third downs. But the ability to get tacklers to the ball is the real key to this defense. A feeling that I have had all along is that Lee would be the Mike and Carter the Will with the club looking to find that Sam. My gut feeling today tells me that Alex Albright will get the first crack at the job with Kyle Wilber as the backup, unless the staff tries to first play him as a defensive end. If Wilber does play end, then the depth for the position has to be addressed.
There will be a couple of different ways to handle this, via the draft or free agency. Let’s take a look at free agency first, some guys I took a peek at this week were Wheeler, Justin Durant of the Lions and Nick Roach of the Bears. Wheeler caught my attention because he played on the strong side and looked comfortable in the physical side of the game. Has a nose for the ball. Did a good job with his hands playing off blocks. Did a nice job as a wrap up tackler. Was fine in the zone coverage but on two different occasions in man allowed receivers up the seam that resulted in touchdowns. Durant also played on the strong side but wasn’t as smooth as Wheeler. Little herky-jerky in his movements. Will step up and fill if he has to.
Will scrape and react. Did a nice job of taking on the wham blocker with his hands. Worked to beat the cut off block. If he has a weakness, he is not as good in coverage, matter of fact he is off the field on third down. Nick Roach is the quickest of the three linebackers. Has the advantage of the others that he has played in this scheme with the Bears. See him off the line quite a bit. Did a good job of physically taking on blockers. Covers better than Wheeler and Durant, knows how to zone drop and play responsibility. At times will jump under blocks and get caught but will chase the ball. Good assignment player, don’t see him get fooled. If the club makes a move in this direction in free agency, it would most likely be a reasonable money deal or they could look to the draft for players like Chase Thomas of Stanford, Khaseem Greene of Rutgers or Sean Porter of Texas A&M to fill those roles.