IRVING, Texas – In football jargon, it's common to refer to a team's linebackers as a corps or a group.
That hardly does justice to the situation in the Cowboys locker room this spring. Given the movement at linebacker on this roster, you'd have to call it a linebacker stockpile or maybe a backlog.
"We're just trying to sort out who we have, who is available and really trying to find the best 10 guys, 12 guys to go to camp and then kind of whittle it down from there," said linebackers coach Matt Eberflus.
That's quite a whittling job for Eberflus and the Dallas coaching staff.
To recount: the Cowboys lost Bruce Carter and Justin Durant in free agency, and they responded by adding Keith Rivers, Jasper Brinkley and Andrew Gachkar. It took a month to reach a deal, but they re-signed Rolando McClain. They capped it off by drafting not one, but two linebackers in Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha.
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones outlined the game plan clearly in a post-draft press conference on May 2.
"When you look at our history with a couple of our guys that are in our linebacker corps, we've struggled to keep them on the field for 16 games and the playoffs," he said. "On top of that we had some linebackers we had on our roster which helped us on special teams, but they weren't necessarily guys that we were thrilled about if we had to plug them in and play linebacker for us on defense."
Anyone who has watched the Cowboys in recent seasons can attest to Jones' point. The woeful Dallas of 2013 was at a loss for linebackers when Sean Lee and Durant couldn't cope with recurring injuries. In 2014, the Cowboys lost Lee for the entire season, while Durant lasted just six games before heading to injured reserve. McClain finished his first season with the team on the active roster, but he coped with various ailments throughout the Cowboys' run to the playoffs.
Fast forward to May 2015, with the team entering Phase 2 of its offseason program, and a plan is starting to take shape.
Lee is back and completely healthy, and the Cowboys hope to play him as their all-important weak side linebacker.
"That's where you build your defense, your under-tackle and then your Will linebacker," Eberflus said. "That's where we start. Those are the two guys that makes the whole thing go. That's the engine of the defense. We're excited to have him there."
McClain, who will have his first full offseason in the Cowboys' system, is slotted to play beside Lee as the middle, or Mike, linebacker.
"I just think the benefit of the overall being here, strength and conditioning, fundamentals, that's only going to make him better," Eberflus said.
Provided they can stay healthy, that gives Dallas quite a formidable duo at its two most important linebacker positions. It also creates quite a position battle – not just for the starting strong side linebacker spot, but for the unit's remaining depth.
A typical NFL team will usually carry six or perhaps seven linebackers on its active roster. Behind Lee and McClain, the Cowboys have 10 players contending for four or five spots.
There are the obvious considerations. In 11 starts last fall, Anthony Hitchens showed the versatility to play all three positions, and Eberflus said he likes the second-year linebacker most as either a Mike or Will. His fellow fourth-round draft pick, Wilson, is starting out his rookie spring on the weak side, but Eberflus said he's got the versatility to play all three spots, as well.
"He's a broad shoulder, long arm guy that can play Sam, that can play Mike and can play Will, so we started him there and we'll see how he goes from there," Eberflus said. "Once he learns it, I'll adjust and see where he moves from there."
Brinkley has played middle linebacker in all six seasons of his NFL career, which would see to make him the primary competition for playing time at the Mike.
The Sam spot is quick to be forgotten, because the Cowboys' strong side linebacker will leave the field when the defense subs on an additional cornerback in its nickel package. Eberflus still must determine a pecking order, with veterans like Rivers, Gachkar and Kyle Wilber as likely contenders.
"I think all of the combinations are up for debate right now," he said.
That's stating the obvious at this point, as the dizzying list of names should illustrate. The process of thinning out the contenders has already begun, as the Cowboys released veteran Dekoda Watson last week. Second-year prospects Keith Smith and Will Smith were also waived Thursday, clearing the way to sign Texas A&M rookie Donnie Baggs – another linebacker, fittingly enough.
It still leaves them with 12 linebackers, though, and plenty of conversations to have about the depth chart. It might sound problematic, but after the problems the position has caused for the Cowboys the last two years, it's a happy issue to have.