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The Cowboys Missing Piece: A Versatile Inside Linebacker?

Will Bruce Carter be able to ride Sean Lee to greatness?
Will Bruce Carter be able to ride Sean Lee to greatness?

Some fans believe that the Cowboys are truly one piece away from a Super Bowl. If that's the case, what is that piece? In this series, I will offer potential needs for the Cowboys, examine who might be able to fill them, and explain why this is the missing piece that will bring the Cowboys to the Super Bowl.

The last two drafts, the Cowboys have spent their second round picks on injured inside linebackers. While initially questioned, the emergence of Sean Lee as the second coming of Chuck Norris has most fans hoping for Bruce Carter to follow the same mold. If this was the Cowboys plan all along, then its possible they've been trying to construct a dynamic tandem at inside linebacker. A pair of inside linebackers capable of impacting any and every play, staying on the field for all three downs--is a second inside linebacker the Cowboys' missing piece?

What makes a great Inside Linebacker?

The inside linebacker position in our 3-4 demands a rather large frame in comparison with some other schemes. 6'2-6'4 is not uncommon. Long arms are also a big bonus. They help in two ways: First, since the ILBs play in front of the quarterback, the long arms help them to deflect passes (which, with Sean Lee around, can only be a good thing). Second, the ILBs frequently have to shed blocks. Long arms help them prevent blockers from getting into their bodies, allowing them to casually toss aside guards and fullbacks in order to make tackles.

The key to playing inside linebacker is range. Range is a product of athleticism. When you're asking a player to drop back into a deep zone on one play, spy the likes of Michael Vick on another play, and then race LeSean McCoy to the edge on another, he'd better have incredible athleticism. The sheer variety of situations that an ILB finds himself in requires it.

As Chuck Norris aptly demonstrated last year (and, believe it or not, Bradie James for several years before that), the ILB is meant to make the majority of the tackles for the defense. Its hard not to imagine that Sean Lee, had he not injured his wrist, would have had well over 150 tackles last season. Surely, that's quite a workload for one player. Adding another ILB of similar capabilities would help to distribute the load, allowing them both to get to the ball at a respectable pace. How do you get so many tackles from the middle of the defense? Instincts. Anyone who wants to measure up to Sean Lee will need plenty of those.

Who will be the Cowboys' next versatile Inside Linebacker?

The Prospects

The Cowboys next inside linebacker can only come from one of three places: the draft, free agency, or their own roster. Free agency has left us with Dan Connor, so we'll lump him in with the current roster and forgo the free agency portion. First up, the draft prospects:

Inside Linebacker Prospects, 2012

CBS (Drafttek)
Name College Height Weight

40 Yard Dash

Vertical Jump

1 12 (7) Luke Kuechly Boston College 6' 3" 242 lbs. 4.58 38.0
2 41 (28) Dont'a Hightower Alabama 6' 4" 245 lbs. 4.68 32.0
2-3 76 (51) Mychal Kendricks California 5' 11" 240 lbs. 4.47 39.5
3-4 118 (152) James-Michael Johnson Nevada 6' 1" 241 lbs. 4.68 37.0
4-5 145 (148) Emmanuel Acho Texas 6' 1" 238 lbs. 4.73 35.5
4-5 151 (147) Tank Carder TCU 6' 2" 236 lbs. 4.69 34.5
5 164 (86) Audie Cole NC State 6' 4" 242 lbs. 4.81 35.0
5-6 185 (143) Vontaze Burfict Arizona State 6' 1" 248 lbs. 5.09 30.0

The first thing that jumps out at me in these rankings is how drastically different the overall rankings are between CBS and Drafttek. Because so much of the position relies on instinct, individual scouts are more likely to disagree with others' evaluations. The next big thing is Vontaze Burfict. The fact that he collected almost all of my colored rankings (yes, even for the weight that so obviously weighed him down) tempted me to remove him from the table, however his previous extremely high standing has left him with more than a few fans, and I doubt they'd be happy to see him left out.

The most promising prospect is clearly Luke Kuechly. Let's put it this way: Sean Lee is to Chuck Norris as Luke Kuechly is to Superman. And there's no kryptonite on the football field. Kuechly is a better athlete, and also put up far superior stats while at Boston College. If you could pair one man with Chuck Norris, wouldn't it be Superman? There are some other intriguing prospects, but clearly this class consists of Luke Kuechly, and then everyone else.

The Roster

With the all-but-official departures of Bradie James and Keith Brooking, neither expected to be re-signed, inside linebacker has become somewhat of a position of need for the Cowboys.

Cowboys Inside Linebackers, 2012

2011 PFF
Salary Cap Hit
Name Experience Height Weight Tackles Age at Start of
2012 Season
13.7 $840,000 Sean Lee
2 6' 2" 245 lbs. 137 26
4.9 $2,150,00 Dan Connor
6 6' 2" 231 lbs. 156 26
-1.7 $1,053,164 Bruce Carter
1 6' 3" 233 lbs. 8 24
-- $390,000 Orie Lemon 1 6' 1" 244 lbs. -- 24
-- $465,000 Brashton Satele 2 6' 0" 248 lbs. -- 24

Now, be honest, is anyone surprised at who tops this list? Of course not. Next up, Dan Connor, is someone we might not know very well around here. Over his career, he's garnered a cumulative +21.8 PFF grade. This all while being stuck behind Jon Beason. In a 4-3 defense, being the second MLB means you see about as many snaps as a healthy David Buehler. Alright, maybe not so extreme, but his grade is nonetheless impressive. What surprises me about him is that he's known for being a run-stuffer, yet he's the lightest among all of our ILBs. Also, despite his 4 year advantage in experience, he's the same age as Sean Lee.

Bruce Carter, although we collectively hope for him to attain greatness, is still a relative unknown. And behind him? Two true question marks who've yet to acquire their first NFL stats. The fact that we have no proven depth at the position makes ILB into a legitimate concern, and certainly adds to the value any prospects in the draft might have to the Cowboys.

Honestly, I don't see Lemon or Satele achieving a meteoric rise this season. I hope Bruce Carter emerges the way Sean Lee has, but hoping doesn't make it so. That said, between Carter and Connor, its possible we've already acquired our next elite starting ILB. Regardless of their roles, the numbers indicate that we could use another inside linebacker on the roster.

How will a versatile inside linebacker benefit the Cowboys?

Last season, we all saw the impact Sean Lee had on our defense. He was always around the ball, making plays that were impossible for either of the old men behind him. Interceptions, fumble recoveries, tackles-for-loss...Lee filled the stat sheet (aside from those elusive sacks). Also glaringly obvious was the extreme drop-off in play between Lee and whoever lined up next to him. Even more painful was watching the Eagles destroy a defense missing Sean Lee. I can't predict how much better our defense would have been with two Sean Lees on the field (my guess: a lot), but given that Eagles game, I can tell you how much better off they'll be in the event Lee goes down.

To say the Cowboys need an ILB is not diminishing the impact of Sean Lee. Rather, its acknowledging the incredible benefits his play brings to the team, and attempting to get similar results from another player. San Francisco lines up with two of the best ILBs in football, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, and one would be hard-pressed to argue either of them negatively impacts the other. Pairing Chuck Norris with Superman won't make the streets of Texas any less safe. Rather, it'll ensure both Texas and Metropolis have an extra set of eyes watching over them. An inside linebacker could present a huge upgrade to the Dallas defense, but is it the missing piece?

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