IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys may have found a permanent starting spot at linebacker for an athlete who wasn’t playing the position the first 10 weeks of the season.
“It’s just good to have those guys playing,” said head coach Jason Garrett. “We’ll figure out the best guys. It was just nice to see Kyle Wilber step in there and be a contributor.”
Of course, the Cowboys could decide to rotate the two players out. But even that says a lot about how seamlessly Wilber’s transitioned the last two weeks to a position the Cowboys thought he wasn’t as well suited to play at the start of the season.
Wilber added weight to his frame to become a defensive end in this new system, but he seems to be a better fit at linebacker right now. According to coaches’ film, he’s tallied a combined 13 tackles at the new position the last two weeks, as well as two quarterback pressures and a fumble recovery.
“He really seems like he’s contributed more there than he has a defensive end,” Garrett said. “He’s one of the guys we’ve had a lot of discussions about as we transition from the 3-4 scheme to the 4-3. What do you do with a guy like that who we drafted as a 3-4 outside linebacker? What’s his most appropriate position? His versatility is a positive for us.”
Garrett said the coaches still feel comfortable having Wilber put his hand on the ground as a defensive end. But it would be difficult to move him away from the linebacker position after watching his apparent comfort level there.
Wilber had two sacks this season at defensive end, but he’d never demonstrated the consistency that he’s shown the last two weeks. He’s compiled more tackles in each of the last two games than in any previous game this season.
“We talked about it the other day – really, really productive in both games, around the football, making plays on the ball, tackles for loss,” Garrett said. “So that’s been a real good thing for our team that he’s been able to step up and really step up and have more of a role at that position than he did at the defensive end position.
“But Justin Durant has done a real nice job for us when he’s played this year. So just having both those guys is good for our team.”
Durant, who’s started at the strong side linebacker spot this year when healthy, is on the quick road to recovery along with Lee. Both players injured their hamstrings in Week 10 and seem on track to return this week after injuring their hamstrings in Week 10.
“I did some running and stuff (Monday), some straight line speed things and bursting and stuff like that,” Durant said. “I feel real good and hoping I’ll be back this week.”
He’s not sure at this point if he’ll be limited and said he’ll do whatever his doctors and coaches tell him to do. But he feels comfortable enough to participate in practice and hopes he’ll get to do so fully.
If he can’t go, that will mean more of Wilber, who’s emerged out of nowhere as a possible starting candidate at the Sam linebacker spot for the late playoff push. If Durant does practice fully this week, then that will leave some decisions to make for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus regarding playing time between Durant and Wilber.
They could stick with the veteran Durant or go with the former fourth-round pick who was evaluated as a solid fit as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. As it turns out, Wilber’s best fit might actually be where he’s playing right now in the 4-3.
“I think he probably benefitted from some of the times that he’s dropped in that 3-4 scheme and he draws from some of that experience playing as an off the ball linebacker,” Garrett said. “But you literally saw him get better diagnosing things over the last couple weeks. Sometimes he was a little hesitant at the beginning, but I think he was seeing schemes better and pulling the trigger more quickly and just making more plays – a real positive thing for our team.”