With training camp a matter of mere hours away, our various offseason series, designed, much like veteran free agent signings, to get us through until something fresher and better comes along (read: training camp) are all winding down. Earlier this week, we concluded our series on top college gridders at the Cowboys' positions of perceived need; today, we put the cork in our "offseason headscratchers" series, with a look at the panoply of backup linebacker candidates.
We already know about Dallas' one-two combo of potential All-Pros in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Add to that former Lion Justin Durant and the team sports a very strong - nay, downright potent - linebacking threesome. Back in early April, however, there didn't seem to be much behind these three; indeed, Monte Kiffin joked that the defensive line meeting was so packed that he had to sit on the floor while the linebackers meetings were thinly populated.
This was, for the most part, a direct result of the team's switch to the new defensive scheme, which would necessitate a new physical type. No longer did they need bigger LBs capable of taking on offensive linemen; the new scheme placed a premium on speed, favoring smaller, quicker players. To make the change complete, the Cowboys would have to use the offseason to fill out the LB ranks.
And fill them they did. Not only did they re-up veteran Ernie Sims, but they also targeted quick undersized collegiate ‘backers in the recent draft, coming away with DeVonte Holloman (sixth) and Brandon Magee (UDFA, but with a fourth-round grade). In addition to Magee, they added UDFA Taylor "Tank" Reed and Cameron Sheffield, formerly with the Chiefs. Also in the mix is 2012 seventh-rounder Caleb McSurdy, who missed last season after suffering a torn Achilles in training camp.
Add to this the positional uncertainty surrounding returning 3-4 OLBs Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber, both of whom were college defensive ends, and its quickly apparent that the team had a lot of unknowns to sift through. Which of the three positions would each guy play? Which men will, like Ian Ziering in Sharknado, emerge bloodied but victorious, proudly clutching a roster spot? That's a lot of headscratchers to mull over...
In an effort to handicap this competition, let's take a look at how some of these guys performed in offseason minicamps and OTAs, shall we?
Holloman was drafted to back up Durant and, perhaps in a year or two, compete for the starting strongside ("SAM") linebacker spot. Indeed, that's where he spent most of his time in offseason workouts, and probably where we'll see him deployed in training camp. Against the run, he impressed by demonstrating some stoutness at the point, holding his ground and then using his hands to get off blocks.
But we might also see him play in the middle. In at least one minicamp practice, the defensive coaches lined Holloman up at the "MIKE" position, in coverage situations. According to reports, Holloman played quite well; observers cited a play where he did an outstanding job carrying Gavin Escobar across the field and denying the ball from the rookie tight end. In another practice, on a goal line play, he dropped into his zone and was able to leap and make made an athletic interception of a pass intended for Cole Beasley.
Lest we be too surprised, its important to remember that Holloman began his career at South Carolina as a strong safety before moving to "spur" linebacker, a hybrid LB/ Safety position not unlike that which Barry Church played as a collegian. Clearly, the Cowboys value coverage skills more in their linebackers than they did in the 3-4 scheme; Holloman has the skillset and experience to fill the shallow zones as a Sam and, it appears, to run down the seam and to drop into a deep middle as the middle linebacker must in the two-deep coverages from which Kiffin's scheme derives its name.
Like Holloman, Brandon Magee can really cover some ground. The Arizona State product's excellent wheels were on display in coverage; Lance Dunbar had been giving all the linebackers fits with his speed and quickness, but Magee was able to run with him, providing tight coverage. Against the run, he also used his speed to great advantage. In one Tuesday minicamp practice, he repeatedly was in position to make plays on outside runs. On back to back run plays, Magee read the play, flowed well to the outside and shed a block to make a play on quick waterbug Kendial Lawrence.
And when he arrives, Magee made his presence felt. He knocked down TE Andre Smith in an OTA practice and wiped out Lawrence near the sideline in minicamp. As superscout Bryan Broaddus notes:
What I have also noticed about Magee is when there is some accidental contact and the ball carrier ends up on the ground, it's Magee standing there with hands in the air like he didn't do it. I believe where Magee will really shine is when the pads come on in Oxnard but until then, he is catching my eye with more consistency.
This suggests that speed is not the only element of Magee's game; he can also bring the lumber. As Broaddus, notes, he'll be at his best when the pads come on in Oxnard.
Reed is another physical player with a nose for the ball. In the rookie minicamps, Reed was the starting middle linebacker and made reporters stand up and take notice. Although he's neither the biggest guy, coming in a touch under six feet tall, nor the smoothest athlete, he uses intelligence and instincts to make plays - most surprisingly in coverage. Like Magee, he's likely to elevate his game when the pads come on in a few short days.
Don't sleep on McSurdy. Although his rookie season ended early in training camp because of a torn Achilles tendon suffered during a non-contact drill, the team really likes his approach to the game. He is an instinctual player (his offseason highlight was forcing a fumble on Escobar), who the organization believed was a better athlete than was widely believed before the draft. It appears that the Cowboys want to find a spot for him; during minicamps they had him playing fullback in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Still, to secure a roster spot on an increasingly crowded depth chart, McSurdy will have to show he can play special teams, and play them well.
These young bucks will have to compete against a couple of veterans, Ernie Sims and Alex Albright, who wore the star last season. Both offer compelling reasons to keep them on the roster as well as sufficient questions to wonder about their viability.
Sims did a surprisingly good job last year, coming in following an injury to Sean Lee and learning the system quickly. He ended up starting six games, and played well, registering 42 tackles, a sack, two quarterback pressures and three pass deflections. Moreover, he's a better fit for the Cowboys' new 4-3 scheme, where he has experience playing both the middle and weakside positions.
On the other hand, backup 4-3 linebackers must be important cogs in the special teams machine; in his late 20s, will Sims be inclined to do the dirty work necessary to become a mainstay on teams? And, speaking of his age, will Sims make too much, even at the veteran minimum for a player of his experience level? An interesting note in that regard: the Cowboys guaranteed Magee $70,000 to sign as a UDFA. Sims' contract does not have any guaranteed money.
In 2012, Albright was the linebacking unit's Swiss Army knife, playing both inside and outside and making a mark as a top-notch special teamer. After Jason Witten injured his spleen in the first preseason game last year, he even spent a week or so taking snaps at tight end. This suggests that the best part of Albright's game is his flexibility, which is something that Jason Garrett values highly. The flip side of such flexibility, however, is a lack of specialization. Albright can do a lot of things well, but where does he excel?
And I think this is even more of an open question when we consider the move to a 4-3, where the former college end will have to show that he can get into pass drops and close on the ball as quickly as this scheme requires. If you look at the profile of the players with whom he'll joust, you'll see that all of them are undersized (between 6'0" and 6'2" and 230-240 lbs) cat-quick types. The 6'5", 260 pound Albright seems lumbering by comparison. His area of expertise, I think, will have to be special teams, and whatever he can contribute as a linebacker will have to be seen by the coaching staff as gravy.
So, how might all this play out? I suppose much of it depends on how many linebackers the team decided to carry. Certainly two of the three starters are secure, and Durant would fail to make team only if Holloman beats him out in training camp, and decisively, which seems unlikely. And, given the team's investment in both Holloman and Magee, I like their chances as well.
That leaves one or two spots, to be fought over by Sims, Albright, McSurdy, Reed and, perhaps a guy like Cameron Sheffield, who notched two sacks in a minicamp practice. I think Sims' chances of making the team depend largely on the progress shown by Holloman and Magee; if the youngsters can adapt to the NFL game and, more importantly, shine on special teams, they can make Sims expendable, a la Brodney Pool last year.
Indeed, special teams is almost certain to be the determining factor in who sticks at the bottom of the LB depth chart. This favors McSurdy and Albright who, strangely, may be battling for the same spot; neither is a particularly good scheme fit, but both have the potential to make up for this with superior special teams play. Given that, I'd have to give the edge to Albright.
If this plays out along these lines, we would see something like this:
- Roster: Lee, Carter, Durant, Holloman, Magee, Albright
- Practice Squad: Reed and/ or McSurdy
What think you, BTBers? Playing GM for the day, which ‘backers do you keep, and why?