Even with the re-signing of Rolando McClain and the insurance policies that are Jasper Brinkley and Anthony Hitchens, the Cowboys can find serious value at the linebacker position in this year's draft. Matt Eberflus succeeded with his unit last year despite the injuries.
If the Cowboys are going to take a step forward from the success they had in 2014, they will need to add to the linebacker corps and hopefully get a better bill of health. Like many positions in 2015, linebacker certainly has options o'plenty. Here's a look at the prospects on my short list.
Eric Kendricks, 6'0 232 lbs, UCLA
By far the best option in my opinion as well as a BTB favorite. Kendricks is the most instinctual prospect in the draft. CBS Rang and Brugler compare him to Bobby Wagner of the Seahawks, whom the Cowboys were reportedly high on a few years ago. Like Wagner, Kendricks has impeccable closing speed and can deliver a blow despite what his six-foot flat-frame suggests. He's got that sideline-to-sideline mentality and ability to turn and chase on a dime. Great awareness in both zone and man coverages but is admittedly smaller than desired. He may need to add a few pounds and needs development getting ball carriers down behind the line. He's a stud on and off the field though and would be a solid pick for Dallas at 27. He could play either Will or Mike in the Cowboys scheme.
Shaq Thompson, 6'0 228 lbs, Washington
Despite all of Mayock's talk about placing him at safety, as Mike Ditka would say STOP IT! I'm keeping Thompson at linebacker where he's more comfortable and plays better anyhow. He's a very intuitive player who has the versatility to play at any of the three positions. Though he's small, I'd like to see what he could do at the Sam, but he's probably a more natural Will. He plays with fluid hips, can turn and cover when needed. He's deceptive enough to slide by would-be blockers and deliver an effective punch. He has issues rushing the passer effectively and could add more bulk and weight. He will have a lot of hurdles to jump but is certainly worth the late-first-round status and has a visit planned with Dallas.
Benardrick McKinney, 6'4 246 lbs, Mississippi State
Out of all the prospects, McKinney is the guy I feel most comfortable placing at the Sam. He's got great size and length but is an awfully raw athlete. McKinney has the tools to develop at any position in the linebacker corps and is one physical dude. He has great straight-line speed and can tackle well enough. Like McClain, he can meet lineman head-on and do some damage to running lanes. He rarely loses himself while in the play and can hold his own against tight ends. McKinney also has powerful hands as a rusher and can shed blockers too. He has great lateral agility but his technique needs work. McKinney can often lose sight of the quarterback and will need help in hi recovery time. However, he's a big and powerful athlete and will find a home likely in round two.
Stephone Anthony, 6'3 243 lbs, Clemson
Coach Gary's favorite and possible rebuttal to my previous praise of Kendricks. Anthony is sneaking up the charts and may find himself taken earlier than expected. He's an extremely athletic backer with the ideal frame and speed to excel in the NFL. Anthony has a good thickness to him with broad shoulders and a well-built frame. A highly aggressive player with superior motor and drive. Anthony has the ideal speed for the chase and is an effective blitzer. He's what you call a finisher and can diagnose a play rather quickly. Like McKinney, Anthony has the ability to cover skill position players. Anthony also does a great job at keeping himself in the right frame of position to make plays. He will certainly need more development with cut back lanes for runners and must show better job at disengaging blocks. He could use a little hand work and refinery with his technique but is ahead of a lot of linebackers of his age. He could creep into the first with needy teams like Green Bay but would be a steal for Dallas in the second.
Paul Dawson, 6'0 235 lbs, TCU
Dawson has great agility and balance for the position. He also possesses the outstanding instincts that it takes to excel at the pro level. He's very quick to locate the ball and make his pursuit. Very smooth and laterally successful player who makes it tough for offensive linemen to engage. He knows how to make himself smaller to get to the ball carrier. He excelled in college in pass defense allowing only 35.7% to be completed. He's got all the talent but has serious questions about his want-to. Dawson had a terrible combine and has multiple personal character issues. His lack of effort at the combine was very hurtful to his stock and he seemed to be careless. He did better at his pro day. He's a natural fit at the Will position and looks to be a second-third-round guy with first-round abilities.
Denzel Perryman, 5'11 236 lbs, Miami
He has the look of an old-school type of linebacker, very stout and thick frame. Perryman is very instinctive and tough as nails. He loves to hit and has shown his ability to lower the shoulder properly to deliver the blow. His closing speed and explosiveness really improved over his days at Miami. Very disruptive in the passing game despite his size. He's got great eyes and can attack the line with a fierceness. Another very agile and athletic player with smooth fluidity and good footwork. His size will be an issue he deals with throughout his career but he has garnered comparisons to London Fletcher, another small guy that had a great career in the NFL. Perryman is best as the Mike but will need to not let himself be so vulnerable to the play-action. Perryman would be a solid addition to the team in the third round.
Ben Heeney, 6'0 231 lbs, Kansas
I mocked him to the Cowboys in the fourth round of my second mock. He has great speed and tackling angles. Has a motor that never quits, a very smart and instinctive player. Floats well into coverage , a physical blitzer who rarely left the field. Resilient mentality and leaves it all out on the field. A little undersized and limited at times in space, needs work in changing direction-speed. He has the tendency to show some body stiffness and will need help developing better technique. His stellar production in college will place him in the fourth round.
Taiwan Jones, 6'3 245 lbs, Michigan State
Another very intriguing prospect from a pretty good school. According to Brugler he's got the NFL-ready size and strength throughout his frame. Versatile linebacker that can play both inside and out. Very good at converting speed into power and is a violent tackler. He's able to shed blockers with ease due to his 6'3 245 lbs frame. He's a little raw and will need help with techniques as well as patience but jumps out to you as his Brandon Spikes type size. Great athletic ability and range for the position. He's a bit stiff and needs to loosen his hips, has a slow drop and needs more refined ball-skills. He's certainly a project-type of player but could be had in the late fifth round should Dallas choose that route.
Alani Fua, 6'5 238 lbs, BYU
He comes from a lineage of good football players. He's got great length to him and is an extremely versatile player that plays all over the field. Very fluid in space and has shown the ability to cover slot receivers. He has great awareness for zone schemes and possesses a great burst to him. He's a proven tackler that can deliver a nice hit. He'll need to bulk up more to effectively beat linemen in rush scenarios. He'll need development with his hands but shows a lot of upside and can be used a variety of ways. Fua is likely a later round project that could be found in the sixth or seventh rounds.
These are just a few of the prospects the Cowboys could be interested in, and some have already booked visits to Valley Ranch. So far with all the corners, linebackers, and running backs scheduled to visit, it can give a good idea at what they may be thinking this year. There are still a few other linebackers that could be had in the middle rounds such as Ramik Wilson, Bryce Hager or even Jeff Luc. However, these seven are the better candidates in my book. As always, I'll take your opinions in the comments. In our next series we will take a look potential offensive guards that could spark competition.