Cowboys Offseason Headscratcher: Depth At OLB?

To begin, I’d like you to hearken back to the 2007-08 seasons, that two-year span after Anthony Spencer was drafted and before Greg Ellis was released. Spencer was the third OLB, and all the reports out of training camp was that the Cowboys were pleased, even thrilled, by their first-rounder. Consequently, most Cowboys fans felt secure that, if (God forbid) DeMarcus Ware or Ellis went down, the team had somebody in the fold who could come in and play well enough that there wouldn’t be a precipitous drop-off.

In early 2009, Ellis was released to make way for Spencer and, later that offseason, the Cowboys went fishing for a replacement with a couple of 2009 fourth-round draftees, Victor Butler and Brandon Williams. In their two years in the league (partially due to the excellent health of Spencer and Ware), Butler has contributed a little and Williams has been a non-factor. Butler has suited up for all but one game in his two-year career, during which he has collected 5 sacks, and 20 tackles, most of them on special teams. Williams has collected 3 tackles in 6 career games.

Remember 2006, when the Cowboys were sailing along after replacing Drew Bledsoe with Tony Romo? That season was derailed when Greg Ellis went down in week 10 at Arizona with a season-ending Achilles injury. Although the coaching staff was able to cover for his absence for a couple of games (including a scintillating 21-14 victory over undefeated Indianapolis), Sean Payton showed the rest of the league how to work the Dallas D in a 42-17 Saints blowout. Over the season’s final four games, the Cowboys gave up 132 points with the likes of Bobby Carpenter and Al Singleton opposite Ware.

More headscratchin' fun after the jump...

The question for today is: what would the Cowboys do if they suffered a similar in jury in 2011? Does the defensive coaching staff trust either Butler or Williams to pick up the slack if either Spencer or Ware should be sidelined for an extended period? Heck, do they trust either of those guys to play significant snaps? If I were Rob Ryan (and I am not), even knowing that, after coaxing game performances out of a collection of linebacking retreads in Cleveland last season, I can do magic with marginal talent, I’d rest a lot easier knowing I had a solid third OLB, a version of Spencer circa 2007-08.

In fact, I’d place a higher priority on pass rush than I would on improved secondary play. There has been much debate about the root cause of the Cowboy’s defensive decline in 2010. The safety play, particularly Alan Ball’s game, has received the lion’s share of the blame, with the starting corners’ drop-off in performance also getting a juicy chunk. To my mind, the secondary’s woes can be traced to a feeble pass rush. Time and again, the defensive line was stonewalled, giving opposing signal callers plenty of time in the pocket. I’m convinced that, with a fierce pass rush, even the likes of Alan Ball could acquit himself well.

Perhaps his offseason film study has convinced Ryan that in fact one or both of the Butler-Williams combo can be the guy to spell Spencer and Ware. Butler certainly has played well in the limited playing time he has garnered; in two training camps, Williams has impressed coaches with his quick first step and acceleration off the ball.  If he’s not convinced, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dallas try to pick up some reliable depth. And, if they do so, I would bet it would be a known quantity, even somebody he has coached before.

Might one of his guys from the Browns be a good option? Cleveland has cleaned their coaching house and, as a result, will be switching defensive schemes, so there will likely be several ex-Browns available. The most obvious of these is Matt Roth, whose name has been tossed around a bit already. After a rather pedestrian career in Miami, mostly as a defensive end, Roth found new life in a season and a half as a Brown; in 22 games in Cleveland, he made 79 tackles and collected 7.5 sacks.

Roth is currently a free agent, and has already expressed interest in joining his ex-coordinator in Dallas. It remains to be seen what kind of salary he’ll command on the open market. Dallas certainly can’t afford to pay him starter money; if Roth will accept rotation-player dough, he would be a terrific option. Another ex-Brown who will be on the open market (and will command a lot less cash) is Jason Trusnik. Like Roth, his career turned around after coming to Cleveland after a couple of years as a bottom-of-the-roster guy with the Jets. With Trusnik, the burning question is whether he represents an upgrade over the Butlers and Williamses of the world.

If the Cowboys do want a definite upgrade, there will be options outside of Cleveland, with some familiar and not-so-familiar names. Players who make sense as 3-4 OLBs are Mathias Kiwanuka, who more or less played a rush linebacker with the Giants; Jason Babin, who blew up last year after several so-so years in Houston; Manny Lawson (who many were thinking Dallas would draft in 2006, when they took Carpenter) has plenty of experience but little production; ex-49er, Seahawk and Lion Julian Peterson has been cast out in Detroit, and a savvy veteran presence might prove to be a nice addition.

What do you think, BTBers? Are you content with the depth at OLB? Anxious for a pass-rush boost? If so, who would you like to see wearing the star in 2011?
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