(Editor's Note: This is the ninth of a 12-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2013 season. Today we examine the inside linebackers.)
Pressing Matters: The inside linebacker spot quickly became one of the most trusted areas on the team as the season began with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter manning the middle with power and ease. The season ended with Ernie Sims, Dan Connor, Orie Lemon, Brady Poppinga and Alex Albright all getting time on the inside due to the various injuries. Clearly, the first pressing matter is making sure the starters get healthy in time for offseason activities. Another pressing matter is figuring out how to switch the linebackers up to prepare for what will most likely be a 4-3 defense. In all likelihood, Lee will serve as the middle linebacker. The most obvious pressing matter is figuring out who will coach the position next season. Linebackers coach Matt Eberflus could keep that job.
2012 Evaluation: The Cowboys entered the season knowing Lee could provide something special on defense after watching him develop the previous season and throughout the offseason and preseason. That development resulted in 58 combined tackles, a forced fumble and an interception in just six games prior to a season-ending toe injury. Lee still led the team in tackles for weeks after his injury. What was less expected was the quick rise and readiness of Carter, who started the season in a position battle with Connor. Carter became a necessary piece to the Cowboys' defense, particularly after Lee went down, when he took over the primary communication responsibilities. Carter finished with 70 combined tackles in 11 games prior to an elbow injury that sidelined him the rest of the year. Though Carter earned the starting nod, Connor still ended up starting eight games after all the injuries.
Need More From … : The defense could use more Lee and Carter. Not in terms of production, but playing time and staying on the field. The Cowboys didn't have the depth to properly sustain the losses of both of their promising young linebackers late in the season, as the Saints and Redskins ran all over the defense in the final two games of the year. It's unlikely any team could lose their two starting inside linebackers and perform at a high level. They kept the defense afloat with free agent transactions and moving backups around. Albright and Poppinga both transitioned inside and outside throughout the end of the year. When healthy, Lee and Carter demonstrated they're a dominant force tracking down ball carriers and are quick enough to stay on the field on passing downs. But none of that will matter if injuries derail their seasons again next year.
Upgrades Needed: If the Cowboys do go to a 4-3 look, as anticipated, the only true inside linebacker that matters is Lee. That's assuming Carter and another player –Albright, Kyle Wilber, a new draftee or Sims, if he's resigned – fill in at outside linebacker. An upgrade that could be made is at the backup spot at inside linebacker. The Cowboys have trained their defense to learn the 3-4, and a switch to the 4-3 means finding the right player behind Lee they can trust to step in as a starter if something unexpected were to happen. Connor, who's signed for another season, could be in the mix there, but the Cowboys may still want to upgrade that spot. But inside linebacker is one of the more solid areas on the team, when healthy.
Sean Lee – New scheme won't affect him much. He's a true middle linebacker. As long as he can stay healthy, he looks to be on the path for a stellar career.
Bruce Carter – If Cowboys move to 4-3, he'll likely go to OLB. He showed some flashes during the season that he might be ready to turn the corner before his injury.
Dan Connor – Was needed down the stretch when Lee and Carter were both out. His contract might force the Cowboys to release him. Overall, he had his issues as a starter and made some special teams miscues, too.
Ernie Sims – Played more of a 4-3 scheme before joining the Cowboys, so if he's re-signed, he could be a good fit. Despite some injuries, he played well for a guy signed off the street.
Orie Lemon – Got a chance to play before season-ending hamstring injury, coming off the practice squad. Flashed some potential in preseason, but could be used more as an outside LB in new scheme.
Caleb McSurdy – Coming off torn Achilles injury in training camp. Was making strides in camp before the setback. An instinctive player who will probably be better fit for 4-3.
Brashton Satele – Spent some time with team last summer but didn't make it to training camp. Rejoined the Cowboys' practice squad in December. Could fit better into the 4-3 scheme.
Bryan Broaddus on the Cowboys' current DL situation:
There were several things that I learned about this roster last season that will help me when it comes to finding players for this upcoming 2013 NFL Draft. Regardless of the scheme change, this defense is in great hands with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter as the major pieces of it. The scheme calls for an athletic, aware, solid-tacking middle linebacker which fits Lee to a tee. As outstanding as Lee is finding the football, working his way through trash and making tackles, he is even better … (Read more here)