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As Sept. 7 Opener Nears, Starting LB Spots Up For Grabs
IRVING, Texas - With the regular season a little more than a week away, it’s pretty safe to assume most of the starting spots have long been solidified.
And then there are the linebackers.
Head coach Jason Garrett is never one to reveal all of his lineups – he’s even refraining from saying Ron Leary has won the starting left job spot even though he’s been there the last three weeks and the depth chart was revised to put him with the first team.
But the fact Garrett still sounds unsure about his order of linebackers doesn’t seem to be just a coach’s way of withholding information. The way the Cowboys have shuffled linebackers in an out of the lineup these past few weeks, both in games and practices, suggests the team is still figuring out its plans for the position.
On Friday, as the Cowboys still have 22 roster cuts to make, it’s unlikely any of those personnel decisions will drastically affect the linebacker rotation. As Garrett has said often throughout training camp and the preseason, the team is looking to find its three best linebackers for the base defense and then two for the nickel. That doesn’t mean five different players will be in the rotation, since guys like Justin Durant and Bruce Carter have both played in the nickel and could start, but with the emergence of Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens, it’s possible a five-player rotation will be used on defense.
McClain started the game Thursday and was active in the backfield. Garrett wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him starting, and when asked if he’s played enough in the preseason to be ready for the opener against the 49ers, Garrett said he’s received an ample amount of work.
“He’s actually played a fair number of snaps over the last few weeks,” Garrett said of McClain, “We feel like he’s practiced well, and he’s gotten good snaps. I think he played 15 or 16 snaps in (Thursday) night’s game, played last week. So he’s someone that we feel over the course of training camp has gotten more and more work and gotten more comfortable and will be ready to play for us.”
If McClain is moved to the starting spot in the middle, Durant would slide to the outside, presumably at the SAM (strong side) and Bruce Carter will be at the weak-side spot. Kyle Wilber has also been in the mix, along with Hitchens. The fourth-round pick has played both inside and outside linebacker in the last few weeks.
“We understand, we have three linebackers in the base and typically linebackers in the nickel,” Garrett said. “They have different roles. We like what they’ve done and the competition has been good. We like the combinations of guys and we’re going to give them a chance to be a part of it.”
And Garrett doesn’t seem too concerned that it’s not finalized just yet, even with the regular-season approaching.
“We will have a plan, but the idea is that these guys are going to play. It’s not etched in stone that ‘you three are playing and you guys are never going to play.’ We don’t anticipate doing that, particularly with those guys because they are involved in special teams and there are so many things that they do. So every active player will be ready to go and play some different roles.
Another position in question is defensive end, which has a trickle-down effect to the linebackers, considering Wilber’s flexibility. The former defensive end might be used to rush the passer, especially in these early-season games that Anthony Spencer could miss, and rookie DeMarcus Lawrence certainly will miss.
“The depth in the defensive line is an important thing for us to be on top of here in the next few days,” Garrett said. “And Wilber’s versatility – he played defensive end in this system until Week 10 last year, so he’s played it very consciously. We gave him some reps at it in training camp and in games to do it, as well as playing that SAM spot. He can’t play every snap of every game at all these different spots, but he could alleviate some issues on the defensive line. We also could give those other guys opportunities to play linebacker as we go here.”