(Editor's Note: The staff of DallasCowboys.com is currently previewing the depth chart at each position on the Cowboys' roster. The biggest remaining variable in determining that depth chart is the NFL draft, which begins April 30. This series will identify five potential draft picks who could affect the depth chart at each position. Today, we continue with linebacker.)
IRVING, Texas –Injuries made linebacker a revolving door for the Cowboys last year, beginning with Sean Lee's torn ACL all the way back in OTA's. Now Lee's back to play the weak side, middle linebacker Rolando McClain returns on a one-year deal, and newly-signed Jasper Brinkley and Keith Rivers will try to ease the free-agent losses of Justin Durant and Bruce Carter. 2014 fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens has been a pleasant surprise, too.
Still, given the position's past durability issues, the Cowboys could look for an impact linebacker anywhere in the draft, even as high as opening night.
Here's a look at five players projected to go in the early, middle and late rounds:
- Eric Kendricks, UCLA –The Butkus Award winner as college football's best linebacker, Kendricks is the type of instinctive, sideline-to-sideline prospect who would fit well in Rod Marinelli's scheme. At 6-0 and 230 pounds he doesn't have great size for the NFL, but he compensates well as a physical tackler with outstanding instincts. Kendricks could fall to the Cowboys at No. 27, and he'd be a solid choice as a middle or outside linebacker with three-down potential due to his coverage ability.
- Shaq Thompson, Washington –There may not be a more versatile or high-motor prospect in the entire draft. Thompson was literally all over the field for the Huskies, averaging 7.5 yards a carry as a running back last season as a junior, along with 81 tackles at linebacker and impactful play on special teams. Some draft experts view the 6-1, 230-pounder as a safety; some say he's a linebacker, the position Thompson openly wants to play. He would most likely fit best as an outside linebacker in the Cowboys' 4-3 scheme. No matter where he lines up, Thompson is a catalytic player who might sneak into the first round.
- Bernardrick McKinney, Mississippi State –Unlike Kendricks and Thompson, McKinney certainly doesn't lack size. The 6-4, 245-pounder is a big-hitting 'backer with deceptive athleticism and solid pass rush skills that might even allow him to play on the line as a defensive end. McKinney entered the draft after garnering All-SEC and All-American honors as a junior. Probably best suited inside, he's also a borderline first-round prospect who shouldn't last past the early stages of Round 2.
- Ben Heeney, Kansas –Heeney's stock soared after he tested first among all combine linebackers in the 20-yard short shuttle, 60-yard shuttle and three-cone drill. Heeney's a bit undersized at 230 pounds, but he was a productive three-year starter for the Jayhawks, tallying 127 tackles as a senior. A guy with a knack for finding the ball and making plays, Heeney will likely be a mid-round pick.
- Jake Ryan, Michigan –A four-year starter and two-time captain for the Wolverines, Ryan has position flexibility with his experience at outside and middle linebacker. Ryan returned from a 2013 ACL tear to notch 112 tackles as a senior. He's not strong in coverage, but he's an excellent run defender who might be a good value pick on Day 3.