Earlier, our own KD Drummond took a Twitter question about Anthony Spencer and turned it into a great post about the possibilities of his future at the Sam linebacker position. After reading over KD's post, it motivated me into taking a stab at what we have at strong-side linebacker, and there are a couple of options for the Dallas Cowboys to consider.
As of right now, one of those options includes Dan Connor, who played the Sam position in Carolina. Connor was seen mostly as a disappointment in 2012, and I really don't see how the Cowboys can afford to carry a backup linebacker with a salary of $3 million. Unless the Cowboys are confident with Connor as their new starter at the Sam, then he could become a cap casualty and be released.
One name who I think has flown under the radar a little bit is Ernie Sims. The Cowboys' pro scouting department did their homework and they relayed that information to the front office when Sean Lee was lost for the season. Sims signed a one-year deal with the team and was immediately relied on. I won't say that Sims was outstanding in 2012, but he was a serviceable player who finally found a role in the NFL. If he can be brought back on a deal that works for both sides, then Sims could play himself into the competition for the Sam linebacker.
Before we say that Sims is too small (6-0, 230), I want to point out that Jonathan Bales did some excellent research on the average size of Monte Kiffin's defensive players in Tampa Bay from 2003-2008. According to Bales, the average strong-side linebacker stood in at 6-1, and weighed 235 pounds. So by looking over the average size of Kiffin's Sam linebacker, Sims would be pretty close to an ideal fit.
Anthony Spencer's career season could possibly push himself out of the Cowboys' price range. Ideally, I've always felt that Spencer made more sense as a 4-3 defensive end, not a 3-4 or 4-3 linebacker. That's not to say he can't play the role, it's just that he's a beast when he's able to rush the passer and use his strength at the line of scrimmage. If the Cowboys and Spencer come to an equal ground contractually, Spencer will probably be playing with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end.
Another popular option for the Sam has been Kyle Wilber, but I don't see him making the transition in 2013 as the starter. At Wake Forest, Wilber went from 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. When he arrived in Dallas as a rookie, Rob Ryan wanted him to get comfortable in his role at outside linebacker. Due to a variety of injuries, Ryan had to make due and play Wilbur in more of a inside linebacker role.
This kid has been moved around too much for him to become a starter in 2013, but down the road Wilber could find a role with the Cowboys in some capacity. He reminds me a lot of Spencer, he's a versatile player who is a good athlete and possesses good strength, but entering the draft there were concerns about where he could play in the NFL because of his size (6-4, 246). Is he too small to play 4-3 DE? Is he not fast enough to play 4-3 LB? It would be asking a lot of him to come into another new position and become the starter right away.
That leaves former Boston College defensive end Alex Albright. It's been a crazy roller coaster of a ride for Albright as well. He went undrafted, signed with Dallas and made the roster in 2011 as one of the backup 3-4 outside linebackers. Over time, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan began to work Albright more into his scheme. Ryan played Albright all over the field, at outside and inside linebacker.
Back in September of 2011, Albright discussed how the Cowboys were working him at inside and outside linebacker.
"It’s kind of weird being in space a little bit, especially being a college [defensive] end. I’m used to hitting people within the first step," Albright said.
It wasn't an easy transition for him, but he began to earn the trust of the coaching staff. By his second season, he had become a player that could possibly break through. Early in the 2012 pre-season, the Cowboys faced the Oakland Raiders and Albright was by far one of the best players on the field. You could tell he was growing into a more complete player.
During the 2012 regular season, the Cowboys suffered even more injuries to an already depleted defense and Ryan began to play Albright more in the base defense. After the emotional win in Cincinnati, Bryan Broaddus was flying home on the team airplane and received strong words of encouragement from assistant coach Ben Bloom.
Tonight it was Alex Albright. On the plane flight home last week, assistant coach Ben Bloom stopped in the aisle and gave our group a nice little scouting report on what a special player Albright was and how valuable he was because of all the positions he can play. Bloom spoke of how prepared Albright was whenever he went into the game, and said that the coaches were comfortable with him.
Albright is an interesting player because of his size (6-5, 260) and versatility. Maybe he won't become the starting Sam linebacker, but it's probable he could play a role similar to Mathias Kiwanuka of the New York Giants. Kiwanuka also hails from Boston College and stands in at 6-5, 267. The Giants list him as their starting Sam linebacker, but they also move him to defensive and in their "NASCAR" package. It's possible that the Cowboys could play Albright in a similar role, but it's too early to say if he can be anywhere near that productive.
What Albright needs to work on is his pass coverage. In October, he talked about being strong against the run, but he needed to work on his coverage.
"That’s probably my strong area is against the run," Albright said. "In this training camp, when they put me in at mike linebacker more, I was able to work on more pass drops and reading keys as far as where I’m going to get as far as routes and stuff and that’s now carrying back over to the sam position."
If Albright really becomes decent in pass coverage, then he could be a starting Sam linebacker. It won't be what makes or breaks him, but it's something he must get better at. In Albright's best game of the season, he looked very comfortable in that role against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At worst, Monte Kiffin will have a versatile player that he can move around from defensive end to linebacker. Drafting another linebacker may not be a popular suggestion, but that's something the Cowboys will also have to consider. We don't know how the Sam linebacker position is going to play out, but Albright could be ahead of the pack already.