Cowboys Hybrid Rookies In Transition Phase

With veteran outside linebacker Greg Ellis now out of the picture, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will bookend the Cowboy defense. Ellis' departure means that in 2009 the Cowboys will always be one injury away from having to throw a rookie into the fire. Making the switch from college defensive end to NFL linebacker, rookies Brandon Williams and Victor Butler have a difficult transition ahead. However, recent history shows us that amongst converted ends, there have been more hits than misses, and few have been able to contribute right away.

I took a look at the last 5 NFL drafts. I charted every college defensive end selected to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. While I found a few guys who have to this point made virtually zero impact, I found a comparable number of success stories as well. This list is not all-inclusive, but a collection of highlights and lowlights.

2008: Obviously the jury is still out on anyone drafted in 2008, but it is fair to say that none of the converted ends made an impact in their inaugural season. Most famously there was New York Jets 1st round pick Vernon Gholston, who struggled to get on the field and was at times a healthy scratch. The Steelers took UCLA’s Bruce Davis in the 3rd, and New England took Cincinnati’s Angelo Craig in the 7th. Neither player logged a stat in 2008.

2007: Cowboys’ 1st rounder Anthony Spencer fought nagging injuries, but had a decent rookie season. Spencer logged 36 total tackles and 3 sacks in limited action. Spencer probably could have been a full-time starter if needed, but filled in pretty well in a secondary role. Pittsburgh Steeler Lamarr Woodley had a similar rookie campaign. In a secondary role as a rookie, Woodley managed 4 sacks, before blossoming into a star in his second season. Woodley may or may not qualify for this conversation, being that he played both defensive end and linebacker at the University of Michigan.

2006: First round selection Kamerion Wimbley rewarded the Browns with an admirable rookie season. As a first-year player in 2006, Wimbley tallied 62 tackles and 11 sacks, garnering some consideration for defensive rookie of the year honors. The 49ers Manny Lawson however (1st rounder as well), has been on the opposite end of the spectrum. The ultra-athletic Lawson did give the 49ers 12 starts in 2006, but recorded only 2.5 sacks. Lawson has struggled with injuries, and to this point has just 5.5 career sacks to his credit. Lawson’s teammate Parys Haralson has been slightly better from a production standpoint, despite being a 5th round selection.

2005: Jackpot!!! With back to back 1st round selections, the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers selected Troy’s DeMarcus Ware, and Maryland’s Shawne Merriman respectively. Both had stellar rookie seasons, and quickly ascended to ranks of the league’s best at the position. 2005’s class of hybrids was not without it’s misses. Transitioning back into a 3-4 at the time, the Baltimore Ravens invested a second round pick in Oklahoma’s Dan Cody. Cody was ravaged early by the injury bug, and has to this point been a non-factor.

2004: The only real hybrid keeper from this class was San Diego 4th rounder Shaun Phillips. Phillips was a standout situational player as a rookie, and became a starter late in year two. Phillips has since become a nice bookend to teammate Shawne Merriman.

Brandon Williams and Victor Butler face a daunting yet achievable task. In a perfect, injury-free world the pair would be used only on a situational basis. But if the injury plague strikes again as it did last season, these guys may see some live bullets whether they are ready or not. The Cowboys have to prepare the pair of rookies as if they are starters, as they will likely be one injury away from being just that. There is certainly a learning curve involved with making the transition from college defensive end to NFL outside linebacker. Like any position, some guys handle the adjustment better than others. Let’s hope that at least one of these guys is a fast learner.

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