I got my one of my better lessons in football instincts back in early '05. The Cowboys were playing Oakland on the West Coast and were working 2nd year ILB Bradie James into the lineup, in place of the injured Dat Nguyen. James looked the part; he was big, fast and had an LSU pedigree, having starred in Nick Saban's pro defense for a national championship winner. On this day, he looked flat. He found his way to the football, but seemed to dither.
At some point midway through the first half, Nyugen spelled him. The Raiders ran a stretch play to Nguyen's side and the vet looked like a human magnet. He floated laterally until he saw a lane, then shot across the line of scrimmage and stuck to the ball carrier. The difference in recognition and reaction times between the newbie and the old hand was startling; James looked like a dude in a football suit. Nguyen, was, in coach Bill Parcells' words, "a football playing dude."
Dallas found another football playing dude last year when it imported Keith Brooking. He was deemed a has-been in Atlanta, a former top ten pick who had lost his speed. Brooking still had his grit and his football brain, and he meshed flawlessly into the center of Wade Phillips' 34.
Brooking will turn 35 at mid-season, and the Cowboys know that his flame could flicker out soon. James has evolved into a solid inside backer but the team has little known depth behind them. They're looking for at least one more football playing dude to sit in the defensive pivot. ILB calls for a different set of skills, one that's production heavy and not as numbers intensive.
Dallas wants all its linebackers to be athletic. This was important in Jimmy Johnson's speed 4-3 and it is just as important in Phillips' 34. Linebackers in this scheme are not stacked, meaning they are not protected behind linemen. They have to play in space but they also have to engage linemen and quickly disengage and pursue the ball.
This calls for big and fast linebackers. They also need to be intelligent, with good football instincts. This means the ability to recognize patterns, plays (run or pass?) and to react quickly.
There's a relatively easy way to measure instincts: Dallas insists on a history of production from its prospects. Measurable qualities like speed and strength matter, but will be discarded if the player has not applied those physical tools.
The Cowboys are even more peculiar about inside linebackers. They look for leaders, who can not only recognize and react, but guide their teammates. Dallas wants inside backers who understand the game at that position; they do not take raw talents and project them inside.
This brings us back to the Brandon Spikes debate of last week. On tape, he checks off the boxes. He's big. He's a ferocious hitter. He produces at his position. He understands zone coverage -- he has six picks the last two years, and returned four for touchdowns. He lacks speed, however and his 5.0-5.1 40 times last week, depending in the timer, will hurt his draft stock.
The question is how much? The Cowboys like Spikes tape, as does just about every draftnik who has seen it, but its not clear how much they like it. The team has also shown interest in Penn State LB Sean Lee, who can play inside and out. Both now project somewhere from the very late 2nd to the late 3rd.
This doesn't look like a posiiton of absolute need, but if the Cowboys see one of these guys as a good fit when their pick comes up at 59 or at 90, don't be surprised to see one of them picked. The Cowboys have some depth outside, with Victor Butler making some plays as a rookie. They have nobody who has proven he can play every down if either Brooking or James go down. Jason Williams has athleticism and promise, but a bad ankle injury derailed his first season.
The 34 runs on linebackers and the Cowboys could use another football playing dude inside.