Inside Leverage: Completing The Cowboys Inside Linebacker Rotation

Who will join Sean Lee and Bruce Carter in the 2012 Cowboys Inside Linebacker rotation?

This past season, Cowboys fans all over watched in amazement that a recent front seven draftee played week in, week out, with reckless abandon. Since DeMarcus Ware was drafted in 2005, the Cowboys haven't really had much success with early round draft picks for the front seven of their 3-4 alignment. That is, until Chuck Norris Sean Lee stepped into the role of budding inside linebacker superstar.

Marcus Spears, Kevin Burnett, Chris Canty, Bobby Carpenter, Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Jason Williams, Victor Butler, Brandon Williams; those are the front seven players drafted in the first four rounds since the Cowboys sent Ware's name up to the podium.

Any of those guys forge indelible reputations yet? Heck, outside of Spencer's strip sack of Rex Grossman this past season, are there many other scintillating plays etched in your memories?

But Sean Lee has given Cowboys fans hope; that DeMarcus Ware and late-round steal Jay Ratliff's stellar careers won't be wasted with little help. The 2010 second rounder exceeded expectations, yet it wasn't enough to solve the Cowboys problems at the position. It takes two to tango, and manning the opposite inside backer spot was a combination of players that were well past their prime.

Veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking took the majority of the remaining inside linebacker snaps for Dallas, and it wasn't a pretty sight for much of the year.

Player 2011 Snap Count
Sean Lee 868
Bradie James 414
Keith Brooking 409
Alex Albright 43
Bruce Carter 41

Much more...

There's no doubting that Bradie James performed admirably in his time with the Dallas Cowboys. James was drafted in the fourth round out of LSU by recent Hall-of-Fame snub Bill Parcells. It was Parcells first year in Dallas, and although he would later bring the 3-4 defense to Dallas, at the time he didn't have the parts to enact the transition that year. James would sit for two years, but would then lead the Cowboys in tackles for five consecutive years starting in 2005. However, he has never been very adept at pass coverage, and over the past few years, opponents had started to increase his targets.

Keith Brooking came over to Dallas as a free agent from Atlanta in the 2009 season; replacing another aged vet, Zach Thomas. While he became an emotional leader for a team lacking a fire and brimstone guy immediately; he was a exposed as a bit of a fraud in a season-ending defeat at Minnesota in the 2009 playoffs. Brooking complained that the Vikings were running up the score on the Cowboys; in-game to the opponent and post-game to the press.

In 2010, you could see the writing on the wall for Brooking. He started being pushed backwards on run stops over and over again, to Cowboys fans dismay. It was clear by the end of the year that the team needed the Sean Lee infusion; and the club knew it too.

Here's a look at the inside backers key numbers from the last three seasons; which highlight the trends a bit.

Player Season Snaps Cumulative Rating PFF Run D Rating PFF Cov. Rating QB Rating Against
Bradie James 2011 414 -4.1 0.5 -2.8 139.6
2010 920 12.5 10.2 2.2 102.9
2009 1011 10.3 5.0 4.4 104.8
Keith Brooking 2011 409 -7.9 -4.5 -3.6 95.0
2010 906 2.8 2.7 1.8 90.1
2009 899 17.5 13.0 3.2 101.0

As you can see, neither player gave the Cowboys much reason to bring them back into the fold for 2012, as both are unrestricted free agents. This causes a bit of a problem as Dallas is ridiculously inexperienced outside of Sean Lee.

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2011 second-round pick Bruce Carter is penciled in as the starter opposite of Lee for the moment. He of 41 total defensive snaps. I've made no secret of my hope that the Cowboys gamble of drafting a first-round caliber, yet seriously injured player, pans out. However, it is a very risky leap to go into the 2012 season banking on Carter to be able to log 800 quality snaps opposite Lee. Can it happen? Sure. Do I hope it happens? Definitely. Would I bank on it? Not a chance, even with a 3.825% interest rate.

Regardless, you'd imagine that Dallas is seeking a new third man for the rotation. The question is, what type of player?

It's possible, but I doubt Dallas is looking at bringing in another high draft pick. Even if Carter can't star this year, you'd have to expect Dallas sees him as a star by 2013. The third inside backer is probably looking at between 400 and 600 snaps a season, max.

So, to me, I expect Dallas to continue their recent trend of lower-priced free agents to find their solution.

From there, you have to consider what type of player Rob Ryan wants manning the middle of his defense. Ryan ran a 4-3 while in Oakland (which lends to the conversation about a more diverse fronts), but did run his 3-4 in Cleveland. This is a list of the players that manned the middle for Ryan in his two years there.

Year RILB/LILB Height/Weight Yrs of Service @ Acq. Method of Acquisition
2009 David Bowens 6'3 260 lbs 10 Signed as FA in 09
D'Qwell Jackson 6'0 230 lbs -- Inherited
Eric Barton 6'2 245 lbs 10 Signed as FA in 09
Jason Trusnik 6'4 241 lbs 3 Mid-season 09 trade
2010 Chris Gocong 6'2 260 lbs 4 Off-season 10 trade

As you can see, the players that Rob Ryan chose for his defense all fit a similar mold. Between 6'2" and 6'4" and between 240 and 260 lbs. Sean Lee (6'2" 236 lbs) and Bruce Carter (6'1" 233 lbs) fall just short of those markers, so I'd expect Ryan to seek someone a bit closer to the mold in free agency.

Ryan also didn't mind young or older veterans; with two acquisitions with double digit experience and then two trades for players on their first contracts. It's also important to note that even though he acquired two players pre-season closer to his mold, that didn't stop him from starting Jackson, a smaller player. Jackson started all six games at RILB before being lost for the season.

There are quite a few names available in free agency at the inside LB position; it's pretty amazing that not many people are talking about them. For a look, check out Pro Football Focus' Free Agent Tracker. Here are some names that I'm pondering Dallas' interest, as they might be a little off the grid.

Dan Connor (6'3" 233 lbs) - Connor played the majority of games in a season for the first time in his career and is now a UFA. He's graded out well in run defense and slightly below average in pass coverage the last two years.

Lofa Tatupu (6'0" 238 lbs) - Tatupu is a little shorter than Ryan seems to like, but his situation is interesting. He sat out the 2011 season due to a 2010 knee injury. According to this National Football Post report, Tatupu suffered from their being no off-season program and now looks to be 100% healthy. He was an intriguing player prior to his release, but Dallas might be looking for a better pass defender.

Channing Crowder (6'2" 245 lbs) - He was released from the Dolphins prior to the 2011 season and spent the year as a radio show host. It seems that he was disgruntled about the release due to his "mysterious injury" and also wanted to care for his pregnant wife, so he decided to take a break; but now he's back. Crowder's 2008 and 2010 PFF grades were outstanding, while his '09 was a bit subpar. He also flashed a bit of pass rushing ability, something the Cowboys sorely lacked in the past few years from up the middle.

D'Qwell Jackson (6'0" 230 lbs) - Missed most of 2009 with an injured pectoral, than missed all of 2010 after injuring the other pec. Unrestricted free agent, spent his entire career in Cleveland, but his injured years were when he was under Ryan's tutelage (09-10). Last year took 1096 snaps, and accrued a huge 18.4 PFF Cumulative Grade. His run defense was stellar (+18.0) but he was put in a 4-3 defense for the first time in his career. The Cowboys probably aren't on his top choices because of the snaps available.

Again, there are plenty of other names available, spanning the range from expensive to cheap, experienced to young, and those that you can probably expect to stay put or look for a starter's gig. I just think it's high time we start including inside linebacker in our conversations about Dallas' glaring needs.

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