While training camp, and now the preseason, has been marching along, observers have been primarily focused on the Cowboys' areas of concern.
Holdover problem areas like the offensive line, the running game, the redzone offense, and the safety position have been subjects of great interest to the majority of fans. Media-generated controversies, such as the playcalling situation, Garrett's supposed neutering, and the over-dramatized jilting of the Cowboys by a certain recently-retired guard, have received far more attention than they've deserved.
But what about the areas that most feel the Cowboys have sufficiently cared for? We'd have to be a bunch of masochists not to take interest in watching the Cowboys' receiving corps this preseason - which should be one of the best the Cowboys have yet fielded.
Better still is the Cowboys' linebacking corps. The starters are all triple-digit-tackle-capable players, with two of them, at minimum, being world-class talents at their positions. Behind them, there is a wealth of young talent competing with experience, in a position group that might only have six total spaces available.
This is, in my opinion, the most exciting battle in camp. Part of the joy comes from the fact that, no matter who wins the roster spots, the Cowboys will come away a better team than they were. There are really no bad options at linebacker; there are only (too many!) players that I would hate to see cut. Adding to the excitement is the fact that these guys have to earn these roster spots by going out in the preseason, hitting people, and making plays on the ball. That's football the way I like to see it.
With this in mind, I followed the linebacking corps closely during the Cowboys - Raiders preseason contest; here's what I came away with.
The starting group consisted of Sean Lee (M),
Bruce Carter (W), and Justin Durant (S)
Lee was clearly the star of their limited playing time, recording three tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He also had a big hit on a third down pass play that forced an incompletion and a long field goal attempt on the Raiders' first scoring drive. Carter had one tackle, while Durant was held without stats.
As a unit, they played with good spacing in zone coverage. They flowed to the ball in the running game, all taking seemingly good angles though, unfortunately, their zone responsibilities at times took them far away from the ball on underneath dump-offs.
Durant was the one to leave the field in Nickel situations, and as such was absent on Sean Lee's sack-fumble.
Ernie Sims replaced Justin Durant on the second drive at SLB
Durant only saw two snaps before being replaced by Sims on the following drive. Considering that DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Brandon Carr, etc. were still in the game, it looks fair to say that Ernie Sims is legitimately contending for a starting spot.
I can't say that Sims looked better or worse than Durant, but he certainly looked more, in that he was on the field considerably longer than Durant.
Sims finished with two tackles and one assist, and did not stand out as undeserving of reps with the first team. Like Durant, Sims left the field on Nickel situations when playing with the first team.
The (first) second string consists of Brandon Magee (M),
Ernie Sims (W), and Justin Durant (S)
If you ever had the thought that Ernie Sims won't make this team, the fact that he's splitting first team reps at Sam and taking second-team reps at Will behind Bruce Carter should shake your confidence at least a little bit.
This group took over when Terrelle Pryor took the field for the Raiders, but left once the Raiders reached their own 35-yard-line. The quick substitutions between personnel groupings at linebacker indicates that this competition is every bit as fierce as it looks; multiple second strings are being tested out because there are multiple second-stringers that may not make the team; that's not because they're bad, but rather because the rest of the position group is so good.
Magee, the only newcomer to the field at this point, received credit for three tackles.
The (second) second string consists of Brandon Magee (M),
DeVonte Holloman (W), and Taylor Reed (S)
Although he seemed hesitant - or simply unnatural - sliding along the line of scrimmage to find his crease, Reed found the ballcarrier on his first snap of the game. Reed seems to be the slowest of the linebackers on the field at this time, and took a bad pursuit angle when chasing Terrelle Pryor on a run to the outside. In fairness, Magee was also beaten to the outside on that play; Pryor was deceptively fast.
Reed, as the Sam, was leaving the field for Nickel situations.
Holloman and Wilcox make a nice combination in the running game. They both run hard downhill with the intent to put ballcarriers on the ground
Reed finished with one tackle assist for the night (described above), while Holloman left the game with one tackle and one assist.
This group finished the half, allowing Terrelle Pryor's scoring drive in the the final minute of play.
The players that saw action in the first half have the best chance to make this roster come September and suit up against the Giants. The order that they took the field shows their relative standing with the Dallas coaches: Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Ernie Sims, Brandon Magee, DeVonte Holloman and Taylor Reed. After watching their performances Saturday night, the only player I'd be comfortable cutting is Taylor Reed, and then only because someone must be cut. We still don't know where Alex Albright fits into this mix, which could further complicate things as the preseason continues.