One of the more popular sayings used by those who follow the "Management by Trite Expressions" school of thought is "There are no problems, only opportunities." Like most of these overused bon mots, if you can dig your way through the obvious overstatement and general nausea caused by such bizspeak, there is a kernel of truth hidden within.
This is one that actually fits the world of professional football quite well. A perfect example is how the loss of Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee has opened up some real chances to stand out for several of the other linebackers.
The main focus has been on trying out players in the Mike role, with Justin Durant, Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman, and Orie Lemon all mentioned as taking reps at various times, but one player who looks like he is staking a solid claim as an outside linebacker is Kyle Wilber.
Wilber is continuing a course he started on last season, as documented by Dawn Macelli. Then, as now, it was injuries that opened the door for him.
Originally drafted to play as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme that the Cowboys ran under Rob Ryan's tenure as the defensive coordinator, the product of Wake Forest was moved to defensive end in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 defense. Although Wilber was given opportunities to prove himself at the new position, it was a bad fit for him and the second-year player struggled this season. When injuries to Sean Lee, Justin Durant, and DeVonte Holloman forced the Dallas coaching staff to make some drastic moves during the bye week, the player who is known affectionately as Wilberforce to Blogging The Boys readers, was moved back to linebacker. He responded to the move like a fish to water.
In the OTAs this year, he has continued to show that he may have found his real home in the Dallas defense. A recent feature in the Dallas STAR magazine shows how his 2013 performance is paying off.
Now listed at 6-4, 250, having added 10 pounds since his senior collegiate year, there is no question Wilber's effort last season caught the attention of the Dallas coaching staff, both on defense and on special teams.
"Kyle is doing a good job," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "He worked very hard to get better at it. We believe we see progress on a daily basis with him. He does have some versatility in that he's a good special teams player as well. He's in a good environment on the defense to learn from those guys."
For his first season and a half, Wilber was seen as something of a disappointment for a fourth-round draft pick. He was hampered a bit by injury as a rookie, and then he seemed affected to some extent by the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. This is something that many of the linebackers have issues with, at least according to Sean Lee. His emergence as an effective SAM linebacker late last season is changing perceptions. With the primary focus for so many of the other linebackers on demonstrating competence in the Mike position, Wilber is suddenly the front-runner at Sam(and Bruce Carter may be getting a similar advantage as the Will).
His on-field performance is probably aided by his obvious intelligence and work ethic. As the STAR article detailed, he was not the stereotypical student athlete who took a lot of easy coursework while majoring in getting a shot at the pros. He carried a double major in sociology and communications, with a backup plan to go into social work if the football thing didn't work out. He also brings that special teams ability to the table, and has already seen some work during the OTAs at his old position of defensive end as the team tries out various packages. Everybody knows how much Jason Garrett loves him some position flex, and that academic history and the work ethic it indicates are right out of the RKG handbook.
That flexibility may be something that we see more of throughout the linebacking corps this season. Justin Durant talked about how the linebackers are taught the responsibilities of all three positions when he was asked about working out as the Mike.
"I'm comfortable. We all basically cross-train in all the meetings to be able to step in just in case something like this happens," said Durant, who said he played two years of middle linebacker in Jacksonville. "I've been studying. I was ready to go. Whatever they tell me to do, I do it."
It does make me wonder if the way Rod Marinelli likes to use his rushmen may also become the fashion for the linebackers. Moving people around, bringing in fresh bodies, hitting the opponent in waves - if the team has the right players, perhaps it can make that work. Carter may move over to the Sam position on some plays, Wilber can step up as a DE or swap places and work a little as the Will, Holloman is looking like he may be able to work in all three linebacker positions along with Durant, and Hitchens and seventh-round pick Will Smith are just now getting a chance to show what they can do.
But however Marinelli winds up using his linebacker assets, it looks like Wilber is going to have a key role this season. He saw the opportunity and is grabbing it.