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Cowboys Camp Battles: Linebacker Competitions Still Wide Open (And Roster Builder Update)

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If you think James or Brooking could've tackled Chris Johnson, check your calendars. Connor makes this play, but will he be able to earn the opportunity to continue to make plays as a starter for the Dallas Cowboys?
If you think James or Brooking could've tackled Chris Johnson, check your calendars. Connor makes this play, but will he be able to earn the opportunity to continue to make plays as a starter for the Dallas Cowboys?

Just days prior to the opening of camp, time seems to be slowing down. Even with the Olympic Games now underway in London, there is really nothing to sate our appetites for football.

If you can't stop thinking about something, then why not talk about? All of us have been anxiously waiting for camp to open, that we may bask in the glory of live-tweeted practices and actual football news. Many of us are also wanting to test the worth of our roster predictions, if we had made any, and still others simply want to see how things shake out.

Linebacker may not be one of the positions you're worried about, and that's wonderful. But when you look beyond DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, and Anthony Spencer, you don't find anyone else on the roster who knows what their role will be in 2012's edition of the hopefully-improved Dallas Cowboys' defense. Even one starting position remains unclaimed, with Dan Connor and Bruce Carter expected to fill that role as well as the primary back-up position, between the two of them.

Cowboys Camp Battles: All Eyes Are On The Offensive Line (Again)

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But what about the other guys? There are currently 13 linebackers on the roster, including the three with their jobs locked down. That leaves ten men to fight it out for the remaining positions. In 2011, we only kept 7 Linebackers on the roster. In 2010, we kept 9. How many will make it this year? Who will fill the four to six empty spots?

After the jump, we'll examine the contenders...(and play around with the roster builder)

Player Comments Chances
Alex Albright Raise your hand if you haven't heard that name in awhile. Albright was the talk of camp last year, and played well enough in preseason to earn himself a year on the active roster. He's been working hard to improve during the offseason, and may regain everyone's attention when the pads come out on Wednesday. Albright has been working both inside and outside, so he should maintain a spot as a backup.
Victor Butler By franchising Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys definitively showed that they lack confidence in Butler's ability to replace him at SOLB. And that's fine. Butler is best suited as a pass-rushing linebacker, and a backup to DeMarcus Ware (ever more important as the stingers keep popping up). In a way, he's our lite version of Mathias Kiwanuka. He doesn't have a place in the starting lineup, but he can effectively blitz from the linebacker position or the defensive line. I think Butler's nearly guaranteed his presence on the roster this season, and may show enough this season to push for a contract extension, as well.
Adrian Hamilton If you enjoyed Matt Johnson's interception highlight reel, you should really take a look at Hamilton's sack reel (just in case you missed it). If his skillset translates quickly, he may make the Cowboys think twice about extending or re-signing Victor Butler. I'm not certain that he would pass waivers and make it to the practice squad, so I'll be keeping an eye on his progress during camp and preseason. If you can justify keeping Phillip Tanner, you can find room for Hamilton. His type of extraordinary collegiate production isn't something you give up on after only 4 months. He'll be on a 53-man roster this season, but it may not be ours.
Kyle Wilber Wilber has done nothing other than diagnose plays and get into position to be successful in the time he's been healthy at practice. He appears to be very consistent, and well worth the 4th-round pick spent to get him. Now we just need to see how he looks against NFL-caliber talent. It's not unquestionable to cut a 4th-round pick. I just don't think it happens to this guy. No red flags thus far. Not even a spare scrap of caution tape.
Baraka Atkins Whoever thinks Caleb McSurdy has the best name on the roster obviously hasn't spent much time with Mortal Kombat. This guy's name evokes a weight-loss plan based on evisceration. As a player, well, I don't know a thing about him. He's a 27-year old graduate of the U (played DT and DE for the 'Canes), was drafted by Seattle to play D End, and then was picked up by the 49ers, Broncos, and Steelers before coming to us. He rarely lasts more than a minute during my roster simulations. I don't know what he can do for us that no one else can, and, therefore, I don't see him making the 53 at the ripe age of 27.
Bruce Carter Bruce Carter earned a reputation as an incredible athlete and top linebacker prospect before he tore his ACL and dropped to the Cowboys in the second round of the draft. In limited time last year, he showed that he still has the speed that served him so well in college. Reports are that he's made great strides mentally, as well, and is now a viable contender for the starting ILB position next to Sean Lee. Despite their salaries, Dan Connor may not be the favorite to win that spot. There's only one way I could see Bruce Carter not making the 53-man roster, but Tom's promised many times that he'll stop doing that.
Dan Connor Formerly a Nittany Lion among Panthers, Dan Connor has now become the second half of the Cowboys' ILB pride. The fact that he's primarily suited for first- and second-down responsibilities may garner the "starter" distinction for Connor, but, in my opinion, the more important player will see the field on third down, where many of last season's defensive woes materialized. By all appearances, Dan Connor is a great addition to this football team. Even if Carter receives the majority of the playing time, Connor will make an impact. 53-man roster, with confidence.
Orie Lemon Unlike former co-conspirator Alex Albright, Lemon never impressed enough to force his way onto the active roster. Still, the ILB may have made significant progress in the offseason and as a member of the practice squad to justify consideration for a promotion this year. In Rob Ryan's complex defense, time in the system may be the necessary edge for a UDFA to beat out a recent draft pick (especially a seventh-rounder). Between him and McSurdy, I'd say it's almost even on who makes the roster. I can't see both making it. And for as much versatility as McSurdy has, Lemon is likely the more capable backup at ILB.
Caleb McSurdy The second-best name on the roster, McSurdy is sold primarily as a jack-of-all-trades. That seems to fit well within the team's current philosophy, but the sad truth is that he doesn't seem to be an impact player at any of the positions he's capable of manning. Rather than making an opponent fear what he might be doing on the next play, McSurdy is more likely to inspire the opposition to say, "hm, that's new." A year on the practice squad may remedy that. As above, he's about even with Lemon. There's a chance that neither makes the roster, however, which puts McSurdy at less than 50% to make the team. He may develop into a core special-teams player, but is that what we're really looking for?
Aston Whiteside I had thought that, once switched to ILB, Whiteside would drift into obscurity. That wasn't entirely true (though most of the UDFAs are flying under the radar now that the draftees are becoming healthy), as Aston had his name mentioned during the last live-tweeted practice, breaking up a pass to James Hanna. Yes, I know, Hanna may likely have dropped it anyway, but I see it as a positive sign that a former 3-4 D End with lackluster speed was able to follow even the worst TE on the team closely enough to break up one of Stephen McGee's beautiful passes. It may be a reach, but at least he's done something. The position change really hurt his chances, in my opinion, but he's still showing signs of life. I look at about a 10% chance that Whiteside makes the 53, and about 50% after that says he'll clear waivers and join the practice squad (he's lower profile than Hamilton).

If you were counting, I just stated that I'm almost certain the team will hold onto DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Anthony Spencer, Bruce Carter, Dan Connor, Victor Butler and Kyle Wilber. That's 7 players. We've kept between 7 and 9 LBs on the roster in the past, which leaves 0-2 spots open.

My favorites for those positions are, in order, Alex Albright, Adrian Hamilton, Orie Lemon/Caleb McSurdy. This will almost certainly be one of the most difficult cut-downs to make, especially with the creativity of Rob Ryan necessitating the ability to put 5 or even 6 linebackers on the field at once.

What do you think, BTB? Who would you keep? Click the button below to launch the Roster Builder, and make the cuts yourself (opens in a new Window).