IRVING, Texas – The mystery of the Cowboys' linebacker corps appears to be clearing up – at least a little.
Already a position of need, the Cowboys' future at linebacker fell into further uncertainty when two of their three coveted free agents – Bruce Carter and Justin Durant – signed with new clubs. Those two bodies were officially replaced Monday, as Jasper Brinkley and Andrew Gachkar arrived at Valley Ranch to sign the contracts they agreed to over the weekend.
There's no telling what impact the two signings will have on the 2015 season right now, but they do offer up a bit of insurance. However they might choose to play them, the Cowboys now have a variety linebackers with starting experience, as Brinkley and Gachkar join Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Keith Rivers and Kyle Wilber as contenders to earn starting jobs.
Brinkley is particularly interesting, as he could fill a void at perhaps the most tenuous of the three linebacker spots – the middle. The Mike linebacker job has belonged solely to Lee for the past few years, with the unfortunate exception being injuries, of which Lee has had many.
With Lee sidelined for 2014, the Cowboys turned to Rolando McClain – now a free agent – and the former top-10 pick far exceeded the expectations by tallying 108 tackles despite various ailments.
The common refrain these past few months is that Dallas may want to reduce Lee's risk of harm by moving him to the weak side and installing McClain in the middle. The one hiccup in that plan is that McClain remains un-signed by any NFL club as of yet. As the free agency market develops, it's hard to guess what a talented but troubled Mike linebacker might cost the Cowboys to keep.
Enter Brinkley, who boasts 33 NFL starts over six seasons – all of them at middle linebacker. Brinkley appeared in 48 games, starting 19, and notched 125 tackles for Minnesota from 2009-12. After a disappointing season with Arizona, he returned to the Vikings and started 11 games with 75 tackles.
It remains to be seen if Brinkley is good enough to move Lee out of the middle, or if he's good enough to keep the Cowboys from continuing to shop for Mike linebackers. It's interesting to note, though: Brinkley doesn't boast the same versatility the Cowboys value at the position, which may say something about how they view his chances to win a starting job.
Gachkar comes to Dallas mainly as a special teams ace, but he started five games in his final season for the Chargers. He played in a 3-4 scheme in San Diego, so it's hard to predict where he'd play, but he did make 49 tackles last season.
In a lot of ways, it's essentially the same situation as before – just with different names. Between the two of them, Gachkar and Rivers provide the versatility to play either outside linebacker position, much like Carter. Anthony Hitchens has already proven himself capable at all three spots, much like Durant.
Brinkley figures to be a middle linebacker, without much wiggle room – which can also be said about McClain.
Free agency isn't done, so it's all subject to change. But Sean Lee figures to be the central piece of the Dallas linebacker corps when he returns from injury this spring. The Cowboys are doing what they can to surround him with flexible pieces.