Despite completing four weeks of OTAs and mini-camp practices, several things remain unsettled for the Cowboys. When the team reports to training camp on July 28 in Oxnard, Calif., several questions still need answers.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – will attempt to answer these questions before the start of training camp.
Today, the staff continues the series with an attempt to answer who wins the strong-side linebacker position.
19) Which Linebacker Wins Competition For Starting "Sam" Position?
Nick Eatman: Obviously this question would be higher on the list if this were a position that played a bigger role in the defense. Yes, a starting job is a starting job but this is really more of a two-down position considering the Sam linebacker comes off the field during nickel and dime packages. Because of that, I can see Kyle Wilber winning this spot, saving Anthony Hitchens more for the nickel. Plus, Hitchens to me, will end up playing more in the Mike. Wilber has a good role as the Sam and on special teams and this coaching staff likes his game and progress. So I would say it goes to Wilber, only because Hitchens will be used in other ways.[embeddedad0]
Bryan Broaddus: It might not be an ideal fit for this defense, but I believe that Anthony Hitchens will get the first crack at the job with Kyle Wilber, Keith Rivers and Andrew Gachkar working as the backups. The only reason that this might not happen is if there is something going on with Rolando McClain at the Mike. If McClain is not healthy enough to go then I think you will see Hitchens play there. Mike and Will are more natural positions for Hitchens due to his lack of length which is a concern with the coaching staff. If I had to handicap the position if Hitchens does move – Rivers would appear to be the next logical choice due to his experience at the position and from how I have seen the coaching staff use him during these practices leading up to training camp. Both Wilber and Gachkar are core special teamers and are better suited to continue in that role.
Rob Phillips: Anthony Hitchens has earned first crack at the Sam spot, in my opinion, with a chance to contribute at other positions as needed. He made a strong impression on the coaching staff last season by handling all three linebacker spots as an injury replacement. For a fourth-round pick viewed as a reach by many third-party observers, that's a pretty good start to his career. The linebacker depth as it stands now looks improved. Jasper Brinkley (and Hitchens, too) is nice insurance for Rolando McClain in the middle, and 2015 fourth-round pick Damien Wilson might be Hitchens 2.0 – he has worked at the weak side behind Sean Lee but offers position flex. Hitchens has proven he can play any position. Just remember, whether it's Hitchens, Kyle Wilber or Keith Rivers, the Sam linebacker is likely off the field on passing downs.
David Helman: My first tendency is to think this job will go to Anthony Hitchens, because he has proven himself worthy of more playing time after an outstanding rookie season. That said, I know the coaching staff likes Hitchens at Mike and Will, and I'm confident he's going to have opportunities at those spots for one reason or another. I keep coming back to Keith Rivers, who signed on in the spring and who has extensive experience playing outside linebacker. Rivers' build could make him useful working on the strong side of the formation, and he likely would only have to play first and second downs, coming off the field in passing situations. I think he's a better athlete than Kyle Wilber, which is why I give him the nod in that situation. There's no doubt Hitchens will provide some competition, but I think they'll find other uses for him – allowing Rivers to man the traditional Sam role.