One of my favorite things to do at training camp is take a position and look at that group all day. I focus on all the drills, all the reps in team, the good and the bad to try and give me a better understanding of how this group will fit into the makeup of this defense. One thing of many that I learned from my former Cowboys' boss Larry Lacewell was when you ran a 3 – 4 scheme, you had better have a strong group of linebackers to make your scheme work.
Where the Cowboys have their strength in this group is in two different spots. We all know what DeMarcus Ware does as that Jack or weak side linebacker but a player that is truly coming into his own is Will linebacker, Sean Lee. When you study Lee's game, you can't help to come away impressed with his ability to read plays at such a quick pace. There are times on film where the ball is snapped and Lee has already crossed the face of Bruce Carter and is on his way to the ball. In the passing game, his drops into zones or when he has to carry his man in coverage, he is rarely out of position.
On the opposite side at the Mike, long time linebacker Bradie James moved on down the road to Houston but it was clearly time. The position needed to get younger and more athletic. When Bruce Carter was drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft the thought was to get a player that could do just that. Be able to take on blockers at the point of attack, play with his hands and run to the ball. The problem that Carter had was he suffered a knee injury late in his senior season but the Cowboys thought enough of him and his ability to still take him and do their best to rehab him for a shot in 2012. I really believed that it was a difficult task to ask Carter to basically have no training camp and miss the first six weeks of the season and expect him to help this team in anyway but he did on special teams.
Thought the front office make a smart move by trying to protect itself in case Carter were to struggle by spending minimal cap dollars to get a veteran player to help bridge the gap in case Carter was not ready. Dan Connor is a productive but at times injured insurance policy to handle that transition. Through the first two practices Connor and Carter have split reps with each getting thr opportunity to run with the first groups. Carter is an much better athlete but he does have the awareness of that ability to read as quickly as Connor but Connor doesn't play in pass coverage as well as Carter and I feel is not as good as a blitzer. It's an interesting battle because you have two players that can get to the ball but each does it in a different manor. I have said this before but the winner of this job will be the best player. There is also a strong possibility that you will see both players on the field together which is something this coaching staff has been working on early in camp.
Anthony Spencer is the starter at the Sam or strong outside backer and this is really no surprise being that the club put the franchise tag on him this spring. Where the battle will take place is who will be his backup? Last season we saw Victor Butler handle that role but he is more suited to rush the passer from the Jack linebacker but why take Ware off the field? Alex Albright has the physical make up to handle the position but the Cowboys went out and drafted Kyle Wilber who through these first two practices looks very comfortable in that role. There were questions whether Wilber would be the Sam linebacker because his college he didn't take on many blocks because he was allowed to rush the passer and run from the backside. Where we will see more of Wilber is when the pads come on and the pre season games begin.
Of the first and second year linebackers, Orie Lemon has gone from being a player that I thought didn't react quick enough to a player that has played with awareness and some athletic ability. Lemon has been a factor in the passing game with his ability to play the ball but also his ability to be stout at the point of attack. Outside linebacker Adrian Hamilton is one of my personal favorites because I like his ability to play both on the strong and weak sides. I have always liked a player that can also rush the passer out of the base defense but in the nickel look as well. Mike linebacker Caleb McSurdy is one of those players that won't show up while the team is in helmets only but when the pads come on, that is where he has a chance. The struggles that he has had is with reading quick enough and not getting caught up on blocks. If McSurdy is going to make this squad it will most likely be as a core special teams player and make plenty of tackles like he did in college. He is not the most athletic of the linebackers but his desire to get to the ball showed up plenty of times on college tape.
Overall there is good depth at these positions. The mix of the veteran players with the young ones is good. If Carter can develop as the starter to pair with Lee, you have to athletic linebackers that can get to the ball and Connor is more than a suitable replacement if something were to happen inside. On the outside, watch Kyle Wilber but also Victor Butler who is in the last year of his contract. I have a feeling that we will see more of Butler in some early down rotations getting a chance to play the run. There are those that think he is just a pass rush player only but early in this camp he has been a player to fight blocks at the point. Butler is one of those players that so far has been very consistent with his play through camp. It's a good group of players with two really great ones in Ware and Lee but finding those other pieces within the group has a chance to make it even better.