With training camp right around the corner, DallasCowboys.com is taking a look at the outlook of each position group for the home team in an eight-part series, continuing Monday with the linebackers.
Big Issue: Whereas the veteran presence of Bradie James and Keith Brooking has been a hallmark of the Cowboys' inside linebackers in recent years, the ascension of Sean Lee in 2011 was the beginning of a new generation at the position. In his second year, Lee became one of the team's most productive players, and is promising to take on more of a leadership role going forward.
The youth movement will continue in 2012, as second-year pro Bruce Carter and four-year veteran Dan Connor will take on the roles vacated by James and Brooking. It's likely that both will receive significant playing time, but they enter camp in a competition to start alongside Lee. Carter was impressive during summer workouts, when Connor was recovering from shoulder surgery, but the team would like to use both on defense.
On the outside, the Cowboys have one of the league's best pairings with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Ware has set an incredibly high standard for himself, and Spencer too, but his pass rush is the key to the defense. If Spencer can supply more pressure, taking advantage of what is expected to be an improved secondary, Rob Ryan's unit could take a major leap forward in 2012.
There will be a great deal of focus when camp opens next week for the Cowboys on the battle for the starting Mike linebacker job next to Sean Lee. The battle between Bruce Carter and Dan Connor should be outstanding but where I am also very interested to see the outcome is on the outside for some back up spots. Anthony Spencer will be the starter opposite DeMarcus Ware but will this be the year that Victor Butler gets more of an opportunity to play on first and second downs? He showed some traits in the OTAs and mini camps where he was just more than a pass rusher. Rookie Kyle Wilber looked outstanding until he injured his finger and Alex Albright was a nice player on special teams last season. Those two should battle for some playing time on the Sam linebacker spot. A player to watch off the undrafted free agent list would be Adrian Hamilton. The thing I really like about Hamilton is his ability not only to rush the passer from the Jack linebacker spot but he did have an understanding how to drop in coverage and play routes. Usually when you have a player that is a hand on the ground player, they don't drop well but that is not the case at all with Hamilton. He is a guy that you need to keep an eye on. -Bryan Broaddus
Rookie Watch: Fourth-round pick Kyle Wilber has to be considered a potential starter in the not-too-distant future, because both Spencer and Victor Butler are set to be free agents after 2012. Spencer's price tag may be more than the Cowboys want to pay, and Butler hasn't established himself as a player who can consistently stand up against the run. Wilber needs to develop his body considerably over the next year, but his play at Wake Forest led the Cowboys to believe he can do it all on the strong side of a 3-4 defense.
It's likely Wilber plays primarily on special teams this year, but he could be in line for some pass-rush opportunities as well.
At inside linebacker, seventh-round pick Caleb McSurdy is competing for a roster spot along with 2011 practice squad member Orie Lemon.
Don't Forget About …This offseason, Jerry Jones suggested Butler should see quite a bit more playing time. Over the past three years, he's played primarily on known passing downs, but if the Cowboys want to give him a fair chance to prove he can be a starter – and a cheaper solution than Spencer – he may get more snaps.
Ware, obviously, will be on the field rushing the passer as much as possible, and Spencer's $8.8 million price tag as the Cowboys' franchise player is reason to believe the team will try to get its money's worth this year. However, Butler has been a better pass rusher than Spencer since breaking into the league, so it's possible he could play even more on third downs, and the creative Ryan may try to get his top three outside linebackers on the field at the same time more often.
DeMarcus Ware:His peers voted him the league's sixth-best play in the NFL Network's Top 100; in other words, he's probably still underrated.
Sean Lee:One of the team's hardest workers, it'll be interesting to see if he can get teammates to fall in line.
Bruce Carter:Jones said in June that Carter would've still gotten a majority of first-team reps this summer even if Connor were healthy.
Dan Connor:Even if he is declared the starter, he may play less than Carter, who is expected to be featured on the nickel defense.
Anthony Spencer:Unless he plays with greater consistency this year, the Cowboys won't overextend themselves to bring him back.
Victor Butler:He has a lot to play for this year: A chance to become a starter for the Cowboys or another team in 2013.
Kyle Wilber:He has the right frame to play on the strong side, but he needs to add bulk.
Alex Albright:A favorite of special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis.
Orie Lemon:His experience on the practice squad may give him a leg up on McSurdy.
Caleb McSurdy:A thickly-built inside linebacker, he should show up more as he gets more comfortable in the defense.
Isaiah Greenhouse:Back at linebacker following last year's camp conversion to fullback. Can star on special teams.
Adrian Hamilton:Small-school pass-rushing terror is competing with Albright to be the team's fifth outside linebacker.
Aston Whiteside:Long odds for the active roster, but there's always room for linebackers on the practice squad.