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What Are Dallas Free Agency Needs, Part Two -- Linebackers

If a shift to a base 3-4 defense means blowing up the defensive line, it entails almost as big a change in the team's linebacking philosophy. In the wide-end 4-3 the team has played since 1989, the linebackers line up inside the four linemen and five yards behind the line of scrimmage. With the linemen positioned to keep as many offensive linemen pinned on running plays, the linebackers, most notably the middle linebacker and the weakside linebacker, are free to run sideline to sideline in pursuit of plays. This is why Dallas has been willing to draft smaller, speedier linebackers like MLB Dat Nguyen and WOLB Dexter Coakley, who is only 5'10".

Shifting to a 3-4 would make many of these smallish players obsolete. The 3-4 requires bigger linebackers since the scheme has fewer lineman and is less able to stack, or hide linebackers behind them. Outside LBs have to be big enough to take on tight ends head up. Inside linebackers also have to be able to step up to the line and take on and beat offensive guards.

Right now, the Cowboys have only two or perhaps three linebackers who could work in this scheme. Outside, both 2004 starters Coakley and strong side linebacker Al Singleton are too small. The best fit is probably Kalen Thornton. The 6'3", 240 lb. former Texas Longhorn made the team as a non-drafted free agent. Parcells remarked a couple of times during the season that he liked Thornton but described him as a "square peg in a round hole." Thornton got his most playing time on sure passing downs when the Cowboys would put a 3-4 look on the field. Thornton showed some skill as a pass rusher and would get extended playing time in a new scheme. Even if the Cowboys get quality play from Thornton in 2005, they need another big OLB. Many mock drafts are awarding Maryland's Shawne Merriman, a 6'4", 245 pounder with 4.6 speed, to Dallas with the 11th pick. While it's far from a certainly, the Cowboys would seriously consider a player like Merriman or Oklahoma's Dan Cody to bookend with Thornton.

Inside, the question marks abound. Nguyen excelled as an inside linebacker for Texas A&M and could probably go back to his old college scheme without too much difficulty. What's uncertain is who would play alongside him? Bradie James has the size and strength to be an inside backer, but he has not developed as fast as the team had hoped. There are still questions about his recognition skills that may keep the Cowboys from committing an inside spot to him.

Free agency will contain two inside linebackers who are young and excel in run stopping. Edgerton Hartwell of Baltimore and Kendrell Bell of Pittsburgh are both four year veterans who will find big paydays next month. While Ray Lewis garnered all the acclaim in Baltimore, Hartwell has distingushed himself as the guy who does the dirty work. At 250 lbs., Hartwell is skilled at taking on interior linemen and stuffing them. When the Cowboys played the Ravens last season, Hartwell lived in the Cowboys' backfield. He will be available because the Ravens are considering a return to a 4-3, which would make Lewis the lone ILB. Bell is a similar type player, though he is coming off an injury-filled 2004 and will require a thorough medical checkup.

Then there is the question of what Dallas will do with Dexter Coakley? The team has suggested in the last couple of days that it will keep Coakley and rework his deal. (He is due a $502,000 bonus next week.) Since Coakley is the starter least likely to fit in the 3-4, one wonders just how many 4-3 packages the Cowboys plan to use next season?

The bottom line is that Dallas only has about half the linebackers needed to run a 3-4. Look for them to address the inside position, which is historically cheaper, in free agency and to pursue an outside rusher in the draft.

-- Rafael Vela

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