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Cowboys roster evaluation: Inside linebacker

This is the 12th installment of a series of articles evaluating the Dallas Cowboys current roster in anticipation of the April draft. This evaluation deals with the inside linebacker position.

OFFENSE: Part I QB | Part II RB | Part III FB | Part IV WR | Part V TE | Part VI OT | Part VII OG | Part VIII C
DEFENSE: Part IX NT | Part X DE | Part XI OLB

ILB

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 four players at inside linebacker.

Bradie James
Akin Ayodele
Bobby Carpenter (inside/outside swing LB)
Kevin Burnett (inside/outside swing LB)

Starters – Bradie James, Akin Ayodele

After Bradie James had a breakout year in 2005 causing the Cowboys to re-sign him to a long contract, much was expected out of the four-year pro. He failed to deliver on those high expectations and has opened up new questions about his game. In 2005 he truly looked the part, but 2006 saw a linebacker who was out of place in the nickel and who made fewer and fewer big plays as the season rolled on. It may be that James is just a 2-down linebacker – against the run, he does a pretty good job, although he takes poor angles on occasion and he was getting caught up in the wash instead of picking his way through to the ball carrier far too often. But if his pass coverage was at least as decent as his run stuffing ability, then he would be a good linebacker. As it is, he was exposed repeatedly in the nickel scheme and Dallas has to consider putting a different linebacker in when playing nickel defenses. When the Detroit Lions are saying "#56 didn’t look like he knew what he was doing out there" in response to an extensive torching of James’ zone coverage, you know you have a problem. Either James needs to show huge improvement in pass coverage, or the Cowboys have to consider pulling him in obvious passing situations. In addition, he’s shown little skill in blitzing, but he was given so few chances it’s hard to judge. However, with Wade Phillips ready to blitz any of his linebackers, James will need to show he can be a disruptor when given the opportunity.

Akin Ayodele was signed as a free agent last offseason. Previously, he had played outside linebacker in the Jaguars 4-3 scheme and was a tackling machine. The Cowboys moved him inside and this change along with learning the 3-4 defense slowed Ayodele early in the season. He wasn’t hurting the Cowboys, but he wasn’t helping them all that much either. As the season progressed it became obvious that Ayodele was getting more comfortable with his new role; he started finding the ball and making plays on a more regular basis. Blessed with good size and athletic ability, Ayodele is prime candidate to have a better year in 2007. Now that he’s got an understanding of the 3-4 scheme, the attacking style of the Phillips 34 could unleash a true playmaker.

Reserves – (Bobby Carpenter, Kevin Burnett)

I put those two in parentheses because it’s unclear where they will play under Wade Phillips. Both have practiced or played both spots and I covered them in the previous position review.

Draft implications

With Ryan Fowler leaving in free agency, the Cowboys could be very thin at ILB if Bobby Carpenter and/or Kevin Burnett play outside. Including the Cowboys decision not to re-sign Al Singleton, although they still could, linebacker is a position of need in terms of depth. Like the outside linebacker spot, a lot is still in flux and the uncertain return of Greg Ellis to 100% affects both the inside and the outside. Dallas needs to find at least one ILB in the draft if not more.