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Cowboys roster evaluation: ILB

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Dallas Cowboys inside linebacker roster evaluation.

ILB

Starter: Bradie James – Bradie James might have been the player who benefited the most on defense from Wade Phillips becoming the coach of the Cowboys. The change from Bill Parcells’ two-gap system to Wade Phillips’ one-gap system allowed James to lose some weight and have some freedom from constantly taking on offensive guards. Phillips also didn’t ask James to drop back in coverage nearly as often and he pulled him from the field in dime situations. Thus James wasn’t exposed in pass coverage like he was in 2006.

With these changes, James once again proved to be a force in the middle of the field by leading the Cowboys defense in tackles. For most of the year he was a tackling machine and many of his hits were of the bone-jarring variety. He even showed some skill in the blitz packages by creating havoc in the middle of the line and getting pressure on the QB. After the 2006 season I was concerned that James wasn’t the player we thought he was and that signing him to a long-term deal might have been a mistake. But his play in 2007 swept away those concerns and James should be a mainstay in our defense for years to come. The one thing that I noticed on the negative side, and this happened to quite a few members of the defense, is that he wasn’t quite the force at the end of the season that he had been throughout the year. The Cowboys as an organization still haven’t figured out how to stop the late-season decline. Overall though, James had a very good season and is an ideal ILB for a 3-4 as long as he’s not forced into coverage on a regular basis.

Starter: Akin Ayodele – Ayodele’s late-season decline was more pronounced and started earlier. Towards the beginning of the season he was very active and was combining with James to make solid tackles against the run. But towards the middle of the year Ayodele was making fewer plays and sometimes became invisible in film reviews. He has the size and the athletic skill to be a solid interior defender but too often becomes a bystander on the defense instead of an active participant. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons this happens, at times he can flash the potential to match Bradie James in the tackling department, but he doesn’t always do it. I would like to see a more active and determined Ayodele in 2008 that makes a few more big plays including some blitz attacks that result in disrupting the QB. His play is solid but it’s time that he goes beyond that and becomes a force on defense, not just a guy.

Kevin Burnett – Burnett finally fulfilled the promise of his athleticism in 2007. His first few years with the Cowboys were a case of potential stopped short by injury. He got tagged with the dreaded label of injury-prone and it looked like his promising career would be derailed. In 2007, Burnett shook off his past and found his niche in the Cowboys defense as the ILB who plays in passing situations. Burnett’s best skill is his athleticism and he uses it to great effect in passing situations. In addition, he’s not a bad tackler so the Cowboys don’t lose a lot if the opposing team decides to run in passing situations. Burnett has gone from the edges of being a bust to being an integral part of the Cowboys defense.

Bobby Carpenter – I admit it, when we drafted Bobby Carpenter I thought he would be a player for us. So far, that hasn’t happened. In his rookie campaign, the Cowboys probably made a mistake by teaching him two positions, inside and outside linebacker, and he never really became comfortable. Eventually, Parcells put him on the outside and he got some playing time late in 2006 when Greg Ellis went down with injury. I watched him closely in film reviews during those games and I came away with the thought that he just wasn’t strong enough yet and had poor technique in shedding blockers. His instincts seemed OK, he was usually in position but he just couldn’t shed the blockers and would get pushed back trying to hold the point of attack, even by tight ends. Down the stretch he did have a couple of good games capped by a stellar effort in the Seattle playoff game.

Coming into camp in 2007 my thought was that a full offseason training regimen at Valley Ranch would give him the strength needed to really become a player. I watched him closely at training camp and came away a little disappointed because he wasn’t making plays that stood out. Wade Phillips stated that he gave him an opportunity to show what he could do in a preseason game and that Carpenter failed miserably earning him a permanent spot on the bench. This was as close as I ever heard Phillips criticize a player by name. The most we saw of Carpenter in 2007 was on special teams where he did a decent job and he was also slowed by a quad injury that stayed with him most of the year. That brings us to 2008, a critical year for Carpenter in terms of his future with the Cowboys. There have already been rumblings that the Cowboys are seeking to trade him and if they can get something decent in return then I wouldn’t have a problem with that. If they aren’t going to use him they might as well get something for him. If he stays with the team he needs to show marked improvement in training camp and preseason so that he can earn some time on the playing field. It doesn’t bode well for a player when two respected coaches with tons of defensive knowledge (Parcells, Phillips) have seen fit to not play him with any regularity. Carpenter needs to bully his way into the lineup this year or he’ll probably end up with another team trying to resurrect his career.

Tyson Smith – For completeness sake, we have a guy named Tyson Smith on the roster but I don’t know a thing about him.