Welcome to another edition of our offseason headscratcher series, the point of which is to look at given positions or schemes (or both) as the coaches do; from that point of view, we can see that they are rife with questions.This time around, we'll take a look at the Cowboys outside linebacker corps - or, more specifically the backup outside linebackers. There are two nagging questions that the Dallas defensive coaches must resolve in training camp: first, which players will make the team; second, how much playing time will any of them get backing up DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer?
Lest ye think little of this matters, I'd ask that you hearken back to the 2006 season, when the Cowboys were sailing along after replacing Greg Ellis went down in week 10 at Arizona with a season-ending Achilles injury. Although the coaching staff was able to cover for his absence for a couple of games (including a scintillating 21-14 victory over undefeated Indianapolis), the Saints and Sean Payton showed the rest of the league how to work over the Dallas D in a 42-17 blowout. Armed with Payton's plan, the league promptly did so: over the season’s final four games, the Cowboys gave up 132 points with the likes of and opposite Ware.with . That season was derailed when
To alleviate this problem, the Cowboys went out and drafted Anthony Spencer in 2007's first round. Although he didn't play much, the team's brass seemed to like him a lot; all the reports out of training camp was that the Cowboys were pleased, even thrilled, by their first-rounder. So, even though Spencer didn't log a lot of snaps, most Cowboys fans felt secure that, if (God forbid) or Ellis went down, the team had somebody in the fold who could come in and play well enough that there wouldn't be a precipitous drop-off.
Ellis was released after the 2008 season, and the Cowboys were once again faced with a depth problem at OLB. Luckily, both Spencer and Ware have proved durable; since 2009, when Spencer became a full-time starter, both player have logged at least 913 snaps a season, with 2009 highs of 997 (Spencer) and 979 (Ware). Last year, with a new coaching staff, both played fewer plays, suggesting that Rob Ryan and his staff tried (if only slightly) to rotate in other guys to keep the starters fresh.
Make the jump, people...
That's not to say that the Dallas coaching staff doesn't recognize a drop-off when Spencer or Ware are on the sidelines. PFF's cumulative grades suggest that neither of last year's backup OLBs, Victor Butler (7.0 in 233 snaps) and Alex Albright (-0.6 in 44), were as effective as either Ware (32.6 overall after losing 9.5 points to penalties) or Spencer (10.4 after losing 5.4 points to penalties). But that could be changing; in his assessment of a Cowboys mini-camps back in late may, the Mothership's resident superscout, Bryan Broaddus opined:
I don't know why the coaches don't play Victor Butler but rushing the passer, he has been hard to block on twist.— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) May 30, 2012
And then, in a recent assessment of all the Cowboys' offseason work, he continued on this theme, waxing poetic about Butler's work:
Victor Butler was outstanding in these camps...Butler to be honest was unblockable at times for guys like Doug Free and Tyron Smith. Butler has a really nice feel for how to rush the passer by not giving much of a hitting surface. As mentioned before, paired with Jason Hatcher [Butler] was able to put some serious pressure on these offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Maybe this is the season where Butler gets more of an opportunity opposite Ware on some downs.
I would second Broaddus' concluding speculation, but amend it a bit. The most evident weakness in Butler's game is that he's not particularly stout against the run; that's why he's limited almost exclusively to passing downs. Now that fourth-rounder Kyle Wilber (to whom Broaddus also gave a positive mention), who is better at playing the run, is in the fold, Butler has been moved to the weak side, to back up Ware. So, the question will be: how often do the coaches want to spell their best defender (who, it must be said, will turn 30 just before training camp begins)? If the Cowboys defensive staff shares Broaddus' assessment, we're likely to see more of Butler - and a fresher Ware in the final quarter of both games and the season.
The strong side should be interesting to watch in 2012, largely because so many questions about the future of the position abound. The foremost of these is: will Spencer play well enough to merit a contract extension in 2013 and beyond? As a part of this determination, must the Cowboys give Wilber enough playing time to know definitively whether or not he's a viable replacement? Although the early projections were good - Wilber briefly flashed in the rookie mini-camp before breaking his finger - its impossible to tell what kind of impact WIlber will have, and whether he'll be ready to spell Spencer without the dreaded precipitous drop-off between starter and back-up.
That said, I have a hard time imagining that Wilber won't make the team - which merely serves to bring up other questions. Will Wilber therefore secure the final OLB roster spot? I wonder if the uncertainty about Spencer will induce the Cowboys to keep more than four outside 'backers. If so, are they more likely to go with second-year man Alex Albright or my pet cat Adrian Hamilton, he of the 22 sacks last season. As Tom pointed out in his recent "on the bubble post," Albright already defied the odds just to make the team last year, largely by flashing on special teams; now, with greater competition, can he repeat the feat?
I think the answer to that depends on Hamilton. First off, is he good enough to convert his historic college production to making plays at the NFL level? If he makes plays in preseason games, and the Cowboys want to keep him, they'll have to give him a roster spot; he'll never make it to the practice squad. Unless he goes out and takes Spencer's job, however, the former Prairie View A&M product will have to figure into the special teams mix. Can he play "teams"? And here's a final question: with both Butler and Spencer due to be free agents in 2013, might one of them get booted off the roster if the Cowboys a) decide to keep only four OLBs and b) want to invest Wilber's and Hamilton's upside?
Whew. Even here, at a position of relative strength, there are a lot of moving parts, and myriad elements for the coaching staff to factor in as they observe their charges in Oxnard. And you thought being an NFL coach was easy...