This is the 11th installment of a series of articles evaluating the Dallas Cowboys current roster in anticipation of the April draft. This evaluation deals with the outside linebacker position.
The Cowboys have eight linebackers listed on their roster, with some of the players shifting between outside and inside. For purposes of this article, I’ll discuss the following five players at outside linebacker.
Starters – DeMarcus Ware, Greg Ellis (projected if recovered from injury)
What’s not to like about DeMarcus Ware? An outside linebacker with physical skills to match any player in the league, he’s become the star in the Cowboys 3-4 defense. Taken in the first round of the draft two years ago, he’s emerged as the all-around prototype of the 3-4 linebacker. He can rush the passer with incredible speed and agility and is the player that the opposing offenses must scheme for. He can drop back into coverage and is no slouch against the run. Strong enough to take on blockers and shed them in pursuit of the ball and quick enough to run down the ball carrier from the backside, there really is no hole in his game. The only knock against him in my book is that with his skill level, he should consistently dominate games but occasionally goes through spells when he is not the most dominant defender on the field. But he’s still young and learning, and with Wade Phillips ready to turn the dogs loose in his Phillips 34 defense, I expect Ware to become the superstar the whole league is talking about by the end of the 2007 season. He’ll likely see less time dropping into coverage and more time getting after the QB.
I’ve placed Greg Ellis as the starter, although that is far from a sure thing given his Achilles heel injury and the emergence of top pick Bobby Carpenter towards the end of last year. Ellis made the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker and was surprisingly good at most facets of being a 3-4 outside linebacker. The biggest concern was his ability to drop back into coverage, and while he’ll never earn his paycheck based on that skill, he did a good enough job to erase the doubts about his playing the position. He was having a very good year playing opposite Ware as the bookends of the defense, but the injury midway through the season casts doubt upon his immediate future. He is getting up there in age and his injury is one that usually takes a while to recover fully from. Much attention will be paid to his progress in training camp and that will decide whether he is the starter again, or becomes a situational substitute.
Reserves – Bobby Carpenter, Kevin Burnett, Junior Glymph
Bobby Carpenter was the Cowboys top draft pick last year but didn’t come out of the gate strong. Switched to the inside linebacker position in camp, he floated between both worlds and never fully grasped either. Only after Ellis’ injury and after a period of Al Singleton starting did Carpenter finally get his chance to contribute down the stretch. Once he got on the field he steadily progressed from week to week until he showed the promise of his draft position by the end of the year. Carpenter should be a much-improved player this year if he can build his strength in the weight room. He also should have more confidence and a better understanding of the position after having worked in the 3-4 for the past year. If Ellis is not fully recovered, Carpenter should take over the starter’s spot on the outside. He could also see time in the middle, especially in the nickel defense. Bradie James is weak in pass coverage and Carpenter shows better agility and athleticism, making him a likely prospect for nickel duty in place of James.
Kevin Burnett is an enigma on the Cowboys defense. He’s never been able to find a position; he shows flashes of good play but never enough to win him a permanent role in his time with the Cowboys outside of special teams. But last year he did manage to find a niche as a middle linebacker in the nickel defense. Because of his athleticism he was ideally suited to coverage and may find favor with Wade Phillips who likes attacking, athletic linebackers. Then again, maybe he’s just not suited to the 3-4 defense.
Junior Glymph is another hybrid DE/OLB who had a very good camp and preseason, but it wasn’t enough to earn much playing time. He could be a player who benefits from the arrival of Wade Phillips, but he has a lot of competition in front of him. His best chance is to become a situational pass rusher.
It is the 3-4 defense, so you can never have enough linebackers. But on the outside, the Cowboys have talent on the roster. A lot will depend on the recovery of Greg Ellis, so they might need to hedge their bets by picking up a pressure player or two in the draft. It’s not a need position, but don’t be surprised if the Cowboys pick up a couple of players to compete at the outside linebacker spot. And if a highly-rated player who can play outside linebacker in the 3-4 falls during the first few rounds, the Cowboys will grab them without hesitation.