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The transition to a 4-3 defense means we fans are left projecting fits of current personnel into new roles. Is there someone that can play Strongside Linebacker?
Over the course of the offseason, topics will often arise that we don't get the opportunity to fully address. They are often constant questions posed to myself and other Cowboys coverage entities on Twitter. And when I say constant, I mean people will ask the same question less than two hours after it was answered. Seeing as how this question seems to be heavy on a lot of fans minds, I figured we should bring it to the forum here. If Anthony Spencer is brought back, does it necessarily have to be as a DE? Can he line up at Sam?
Even though there are definite nuanced differences, 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end require pretty similar skillsets. It's assumed that Spencer would play Strongside DE if he were resigned and it makes sense considering that he lined up there in our nickel defense on several occasions. Several times, though, the question has been posed, can Spencer play the Sam?
Well, you rarely see the SLB in a Tampa-2 defense the size of Spencer who checks in at 6'3" 257 lbs. When you look at the Chicago Bears defense, they certainly don't have a jumbo sized SLB. Nick Roach is 6 feet and 234 lbs. Their previous Sam was Piso Tinoisamoa who was roughly the same size as Roach. The Vikings Chad Greenway is a little bigger, 6'2" and 240 lbs, but still nowhere near Spencer's size. Greenway has made the last two Pro Bowls as a Tampa-2 Strongside Linebacker.
In fact, the only SLB I could find starting in today's NFL that is comparable to Spencer's size is rookie Dont'a Hightower of New England.
When you go back historically and look at Monte Kiffin's SB winning defense, Al Singleton manned the Sam, and he was 6'2" and 250 lbs. Before him though, Shelton Quarles checked in at only 225 lbs. After Singleton was Ian Gold, again only 225 lbs. So while there is an example of a heavier player manning the spot (Singleton), and while Spencer is incredibly athletic for his size that might be too big for this role.
Remember, the Sam linebacker in a Tampa-2 defense has plenty of read and react responsibilities. What happens if you flood his zone with multiple receiving threats? Would he be capable of making the correct decisions AND reacting quick enough to shut down a gain to 4 or less yards?
The goal of the Tampa 2 is to limit the yards gained on the early downs so that the underneath stuff isn't an option on 3rd downs and the defense's zones are at an advantage.
But more to the point if Spencer isn't a great fit at the Sam, how in the heck is 6'5", 256 lbs. Alex Albright? Albright isn't as quick as Spencer is. Now, granted, you don't have to have studs at every position of a Tampa-2, 4-3 defense. In the perfect scenario you have a disruptive tackle and a do-everything Mike that lessens the responsibilities of everyone else.
Even I penciled in Albright as the choice at SLB when the switch was made, to be backed up by Kyle Wilber. Wilber might have the better measurables of the three. We just know so little about what his capabilities are on the NFL level. Does Caleb McSurdy, basically another redshirt rookie, have what it takes?
Overall though, I'd have to say that no, the Cowboys don't have a perfect candidate to play Sam Linebacker already on their roster. This isn't the end all be all to the discussion though, as there are many times players that can do jobs well without being the prototype for it. However if Kiffin, Marinelli and Eberflus don't feel this way, we might have to add another position to the offseason "needs" list.