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Dallas Cowboys Roster 2015: Linebackers Will Vault Defense To New Heights

The Cowboys have had some good fortune with their linebackers and it's about to get a whole lot better. The depth on the roster ha increased this offseason.

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The days of Brady Poppinga and Ernie Sims are but a distant memory as the Cowboys begin their offseason training programs. Now, the Cowboys have a much more talented linebacker corps from top to bottom. A giant portion of that has got to be credited to coach Matt Eberflus, who seemingly can take a pounding to his depth chart and keep buzzing along.

With the return of their captain and a few additions both in free agency and the draft, this squad is shaping up nicely for a deep run in 2015. Let's take a look at the depth chart through both PFF and SPARQ.

Sean Lee, WLB,  6'2 236 lbs

The fact that Lee had been playing on a partially-torn knee since he entered the league was astonishing. It could also be a reason he was so oft-injured throughout his tenure. I have been told that with the ACL being weakened, it could have adverse effects on the rest of Lee's lower half. The body will naturally overcompensate for the injury and put added pressure on other ligaments. Lee will be a godsend to have back in the lineup and he'll finally get placed in what Eberflus believes is his natural position at WILL. The WILL along with the three-tech tackle is the motor from which runs the 4-3 scheme. It's no secret that when healthy, Sean Lee is definitely top-notch in the NFL and PFF agrees:

Year/Playing time Grades Stats
Season Snaps Overall Pass Def. Run Def. Tackles INT Def. Passer
2014 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2013 717 11.6 3.4 5.8 86 4 87.6
2012 331 13.4 3.8 9.6 45 1 77.5
2011 868 10.4 -3.8 9.5 81 4 89.0
2010 169 8.7 3.6 5.6 19 2 73.9

Sean Lee will be a heat-seeking missile at the WILL, that should be exciting for everyone except the opposing offense. The front office believes that with a now surgically repaired knee, he will finally be allowed to resume his career and remain on the field. It's a big wish, but there isn't one player I can think of who doesn't deserve it more.

Rolando McClain, MLB, 6'3 255 lbs

After resurrecting his career in Dallas and becoming a Comeback Player of the Year candidate, McClain signed another one-year deal to offer his services to the same team that gave him redemption. McClain made his presence felt almost immediately, now the coaching staff is happy to have him for a full offseason of training. Rolando is looking forward to manning the middle of the defense once again and offered some words of encouragement the day he re-signed:

Year/Playing time Grades Stats
Season Snaps Overall Pass Def. Run Def. Tackles INT Def. Passer
2014 683 17.2 5.5 8.8 77 2 84.1
*2013 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
2012 505 9.5 -0.6 10.8 49 0 125.4
2011 1,038 1.9 -8.5 5 77 0 105.1
2010 953 9.7 0.9 11.1 73 1 102.9
*McClain was retired, rights belonged to BAL

McClain has actually been pretty solid since entering the league in 2010. Now he will look to build on what was a great resurgence in 2014. With the big-man roaming around, the shrieks of fear in his forceful tackles will be heard once again

Anthony Hitchens, SLB, 6'0 240 lbs

The gamble on Hitchens certainly paid off for the Cowboys in 2014. Just about every single "draft expert" thought Hitchens was anywhere from sixth round to undraftable. The run and hit style of Hitchens allowed for his transition to the NFL to be smooth and at times he looked like a seasoned veteran. Under Eberflus' tutelage, Hitchens turned some heads in his rookie year:

Year/Playing time Grades Stats
Season Snaps Overall Pass Def. Run Def. Tackles INT Def. Passer
2014 623 -9.5 -12 3.4 72 1 103.5

Hitchens wasn't perfect by any means, but he played in every single game and significant time, too. He'll get his chance to win the SAM linebacker position and can fill-in behind both McClain and Lee if needed. His instincts are right on par with the league's top linebackers and Hitchens should only get better in his second year.

Jasper Brinkley, MLB, 6'1 252 lbs

At one point it was looking like Brinkley would be the starter if no deal came for Rolando McClain. However, that shouldn't be too alarming to anyone. After being drafted in the fifth round of 2009's Draft, Brinkley wasn't showing much. It actually wasn't until his second stint with the Minnesota Vikings that Brinkley began to show up on the stats page, but it wasn't until last year that he really showed his value:

Year/Playing time Grades Stats
Season Snaps Overall Pass Def. Run Def. Tackles INT Def. Passer
2014 471 2.5 -5.4 7.7 55 0 125.4
2013 210 2.1 -6.1 9.7 21 0 107.4
2012 894 -16.1 -13 -1.3 77 0 113.6

Brinkley has had his ups and downs, but was one of the better defenders for Minnesota last season. Through PFF, Brinkley was ranked the 16th best inside linebacker and 8th in run defense. He'll primarily serve as a backup to Rolando McClain, but is one heck of an insurance policy. If called upon, the coaches believe that Brinkley is more than capable of giving them a quality performance.

Andrew Gachkar, SLB, 6'3 240 lbs

Another depth signing and reserve for gameday, Gachkar's likely contribution will come on special teams, where he's been a very good player for Rich Bisaccia in the past. He's also the type of player that never misses a game which is music to ears of Eberflus and the coaches. Even in college when he was diagnosed with  the life-threatening ailment of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (blood-clot that forced a rib-removal), Gachkar still made it back for 2008 season. He's a warrior and great tackler that will be a solid addition to the special teams unit. Last season, Gachkar saw more time and the results were not bad for a career-reserve:

Year/Playing time Grades Stats
Season Snaps Overall Pass Def. Run Def. Tackles INT Def. Passer
2014 395
-0.3 1.4 -1.6 25 0

With the limited snaps that a SAM linebacker gets, it will be interesting to see if Gachkar can wrestle away playing time from Anthony Hitchens. Kyle Wilber and the other 1,700 linebackers on the roster look to compete as well. At the very least, Gachkar will be another weapon in the "kicking game" as Garrett so affectionately calls it. Dallas certainly needs to replace some tackles in that area after Dwayne Harris' departure.

The Cowboys also added two rookies that are garnering a fair share of intrigue from the fan base. Damien Wilson was my number one linebacker to look at in day three of the 2015 NFL Draft. Here was my scouting blurb on the Cowboys' fourth round pick:

1. Damian Wilson, Minnesota

One of Broaddus' pet cats for sure here, Wilson plays with impeccable instincts and good speed. He's got great smarts for the game and can diagnose plays with the best of them. Like many players worthy of Marinelli's genius, Wilson plays with a chip and has a relentless effort. Wilson is durable and rarely comes off the field, for a team that can use some depth and competition at linebacker, Wilson would be a great addition. He's tough both mentally and physically and is an above-average tackler in this draft. He's a finisher, something you can never have enough of.

Now I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea who Mark Nzeocha was but thankfully my good pal Rabble did a write-up on him and said:

"Nzeocha is a lump of clay, filled with promise but not yet molded. On one hand, he boasts tremendous athleticism, length and speed (he supposedly runs a sub-4.5 forty). Plus, he's agile and rangy and can run from sideline to sideline. On the other, he's a relative football neophyte, so his instincts are under-developed and must be sharpened with diligent coaching. In the meantime, most scouts believe he can be a strong contributor on special teams while he develops his recognition skills to the level where he can compete for significant defensive playing time."

"Our scouts are pretty clear here: if Nzeocha is to be drafted at all, it will be with one of the Cowboys' two seventh-round selections. So, that's where I'll put him on my "little board." And if the Cowboys do indeed pick him there, I'll be just fine with the choice. The seventh round, after all, is an ideal time to take a flyer on a guy with evident upside. His profile - athletic, rangey, run-and-hit three-down linebacker - is a superb scheme fit. If Nzeocha gets some more football under his belt and develops better instincts, he could well prove to be a late-round steal."

In order to get an idea of what their measurables dictate, let's take a look at how they fared on the SPARQ scale that is a growing popularity in the NFL these days. As a reminder, this purely judges their athleticism compared to other NFL athletes. For instance the average NFL player would be a 0.0 z-score with a 50 percentile rating:

Player p-SPARQ z-Score percentile
Mark Nzeocha
140.7 1.7 95.3
Damien Wilson
121.9 0.1 54.9

Damien Wilson ranks about three points higher than where Hitchens ranked last year (119.2) according to Field Gulls' SPARQ Rankings. Overall he's just five percent above the average NFL player whereas Mark Nzeocha jumps right off the charts.

The Cowboys are hoping two things with their rookies. First, that Damien Wilson can be their second bulls-eye on a Big Ten linebacker. Secondly, they look to maximize the athleticism of a Mark Nzeocha and show him how to take his talent to the NFL-level.

This linebacker corps is starting to shape up. The Cowboys no longer have to pick up guys that they met outside a 7-Eleven and see if he can play football. Now they have created quality depth behind NFL-caliber playmakers.

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