Now that we're past the draft, the OTAs and the mini-camps, it's time to start looking forward toward training camp. This training camp should be an interesting one especially where the bottom of the roster is concerned. When the Cowboys decided to draft 12 players back in April, that was a clear indication they weren't content with the players and the competition for backup positions and special teams candidates. So instead of trading out of their picks, they stayed put, even adding a draft pick in the process.
Looking at the roster, there probably will be few true, starting-position battles going on. Who will start opposite Roy Williams? Will Mike Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick be the guy opposite Terence Newman? And possibly even a battle at guard with Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland.
But there's one position that has to be of some concern to the organization. It's not a problem with the starters, but the backups across the board.
I'm talking about the linebacker position, both inside and outside. Everybody knows the paramount importance of linebackers in a 3-4 defense. They're the playmakers, they're the guys who set the tone. On the surface, it looks good for Dallas in 2009. DeMarcus Ware is simply one of the best defensive players in the NFL. No worries there. Opposite him will be Anthony Spencer. Spencer has shown flashes of playmaking ability in his time but you have to be a little worried about injuries and his elevation to full-time starter. Still, I have confidence that Spencer will produce. In the middle, Bradie James is solid, a team-leader and someone you can depend on to do the job. Keith Brooking may not be the same player he was three or four years ago, but even taking that into account he should be serviceable. So the starting four should be a plus for the team, especially with the contributions of Ware.
But what do we have behind those starters? A lot of wash-outs and a handful of fresh-faced college players looking to make their way in the league. Oh yeah, every one of those rookies is making some kind of transition to a new position, or at least some new responsibilities.
The lead candidate for the nickel LB to replace Brooking in passing situations is Bobby Carpenter. I won't waste anybody's time recounting his history with the Cowboys except to say he's yet to show he can be a semi-regular contributor. He at least knows the defense by now but experience alone won't get it done. Even if he comes out of San Antonio with the job, there's no guarantee he will be any better than he has been so far in his career. The other two main candidates, Jason Williams and Stephen Hodge, are both rookies. Hodge was a safety/linebacker hybrid in college and Williams is looking at a new role that will be less about attacking and more about coverage and playing in space. It's entirely possible one, or both, of those players will stand-out in training camp and prove to be a real gem, but the odds are not overwhelming in our favor. It can take time for college players to adjust, so they might not be ready yet for the responsibilities.
On the outside, we have even less experience behind the starters. With Greg Ellis' release (which I agreed with), the Cowboys really are counting on college DE's Brandon WIlliams and Victor Butler to be ready to go should they be needed. Again, rookies learning a new position/responsibility in a new defense can be a scary proposition. We could be just one injury away from playing one of these guys regularly.
Other candidates for the backup spots include guys like Matt Stewart, Justin Rogers and Steve Octavien. There's not much there to hang your hat on.
So training camp is going to be very interesting. We'll get to see the rookies put through their paces and we'll see if Bobby Carpenter can once again turn in a good training camp, but translate that to actual games in 2009.
Wade Phillips knows, as does any 3-4 defensive coordinator, how valuable and important linebackers are to the success of their defense. The Cowboys have a quality unit of starters, but the backups are a risky deal at this point.
I'll be watching this area at training camp very closely. Let's pray that some of the kids "get it" and can produce. Either that, or pray for no injuries.