*Editor's Note: With the draft now behind us, the Cowboys seemingly have a full roster for the offseason and training camp. There will likely be changes here and there but this group will mostly be intact when the real competition begins. So over the next two weeks, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will break down some of the pressing position battles to keep an eye on. Today, we continue with strong-side linebacker position.) *
What's the Issue:
This isn't one of the higher-priority battles because it's not always a three-down position. But it's still one of the 22 starting jobs.
The Cowboys like Kyle Wilber enough to re-sign the unrestricted free agent back in March, but he's switched positions a couple of times, moving from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end and now a pass-rushing strong-side linebacker. Anthony Hitchens has moved around some as well, starting a few games in the middle when Sean Lee and Rolando McClain were out the last two years. Hitchens moved to the outside last year but again fought through injuries.
There are some other options for the Cowboys, who are hopeful Mark Nzeocha can make a full recover from knee injury that kept him out most of last year. The 2014 seventh-round pick wasn't able to contribute last year but has the size and power to get into the mix.
Don't Forget About:
Rob Phillips: Because the defense plays so much nickel and dime against multi-receiver sets, the Cowboys' strong-side linebacker spot has evolved into a part-time starting job. Wilber started the most games at the SAM last year (six), but in six other games the Cowboys opened in nickel with an extra defensive back. Wilber and Nzeocha are strong enough to hold up against the run on the strong side, but Anthony Hitchens, though smaller at 6-0, 235 pounds, has also proven he can help this defense at multiple spots. His playing time dropped last year after Rolando McClain returned from his four-game suspension, but he's certainly another option for Rod Marinelli.
David Helman: It's a testament to how the Cowboys feel about Kyle Wilber's contributions that they signed him to a multi-year contract despite the fact that he doesn't play a traditional starting role. That's not true in the strictest sense, because I do expect Wilber will be this defense's No. 1 option at strong side linebacker. But I also expect that the Cowboys will operate out of a nickel or dime package far more often than their base 4-3 defense. Rolando McClain and Sean Lee should be the usual starting linebackers. If something happens to either of them, my guess is the coaching staff will replace them using either Andrew Gachkar, Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson. Wilber has found a niche at SAM, but I wouldn't expect him to feature much at either of the more prominent linebacker spots. Instead, he'll continue in his role as a standout on special teams, where he has excelled during his career. If he can pair that ability with some solid contributions when he is on the field as the SAM linebacker, he'll be well worth the contract. It's also important to remember what Wilber can add as a pass rusher, given his experience playing in the 3-4. Wilber has used his versatility to make himself valuable, and I'd expect that will continue in 2016.
Nick Eatman: I've always been a fan of Hitchens. I've never really thought Wilber was a good fit for this defense. So, naturally I think Hitchens is a guy who has a chance to start and probably play more than that in the nickel defense. His issues have been injury-related. Hitchens is such a physical player that he often gets banged up and while he can oftentimes play through it, the injuries affect his play. So if Hitchens can find a way to stay healthy and still be a physical force on defense, he not only will win the job but could be a great addition to that side of the ball.