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Cowboys’ down-roster battles: Who will be the last linebacker to make the roster?

Training camp practices start July 24th. While a lot of the team is set, there should be some heavy competition for those last slots. We’re doing a 10-part series to preview what those battles might look like.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The first place to look if you are thinking about Cowboys’ roster battles is our own 2017 Dallas Cowboys Interactive Roster Builder. This handy tool is kept up to date by OCC, and is well worth the visit because it shows that roster battles aren’t always within position groups, but across groups. For example, keeping a third quarterback or a tenth or eleventh defensive lineman means going light somewhere else. We also know that roster churn is a year round business, so there are likely to be some new names by training camp, and potentially even after final cut down day. With that caveat, let’s begin.

Part VII - Linebacker

These are the players currently on the roster. We’ll lead with the locks, followed by the probables, then get to the fight for the last spot.

Locks

  • Sean Lee. Lee is the best defender on the Cowboys, and has been for some time, as long as he’s healthy. He scored 16 Approximate Value last year, which tied him for the team lead with Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. The next highest player on defense scored seven AV. (Tied - Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Anthony Hitchens.)
  • Jaylon Smith. Smith is the mystery man. Is he fully healthy, as Byron Jones claimed the other day? Or does he still have a hitch in his step if he goes without the brace? We didn’t see that much of him during OTAs and mini-camp because he was rested every other day and media access was limited. How good will he be? It was our Burning Question #1.
  • Anthony Hitchens. If Smith is not yet ready to take on Sean Lee level snaps, even if he’s good enough to assume a lead role inside, Anthony Hitchens will be the linebacker Dallas turns to again inside. Michael Sisemore makes a strong case for Hitchens. He split time with Justin Durant last season (who took 27% of the snaps to Hitchens’ 55%) and could do so with Jaylon Smith this year.
  • Damien Wilson. Wilson took over the SAM role last year, and ended up playing the second most special teams snaps to Jeff Heath. Bryan Broaddus, for one, has been impressed.

I know it’s early, but Damien Wilson is moving around like a guy that’s not going to give up his job anytime soon. Wilson was all over the field even getting some work in the nickel at linebacker. Paired with Anthony Hitchens, he appeared comfortable and confident. Of all the linebackers, his ability to close on the ball might be the most impressive on the squad. There were several snaps where he was up the field, then like a flash turned and sprinted to chase running past his teammates. Keep an eye on him as we get closer to training camp.

Wilson played 27% of the snaps on defense last year.

Probables

Kyle Wilber. If everyone stays healthy, there aren’t enough snaps for more than four linebackers. Last year, Lee, Hitchens, Durant, and Wilson covered all but 139 snaps. If you replace Durant with Smith, there might be fewer snaps. Kyle Wilber has a $1.75 million cap hit, with only $500,000 in dead money if the Cowboys move on. Will they? Not likely. Wilber has played many positions, including emergency defensive end. But his main value is as a core special teams player.

Fighting For That Last Spot

The Cowboys have alternated carrying seven and six linebackers over the last four years. Andrew Gachkar, who was primarily a special teams player, and Justin Durant, who shared time with Anthony Hitchens, are no longer with the team. That leaves these two guys fighting for that sixth spot.

  • Mark Nzeocha. Nzeocha has shown promise, and he’s under cheap control for the next two years. But he’s also been unable to stay healthy, playing in only seven games his first two years in the league.
  • John Lotulelei. The Cowboys are Lotuelei’s fourth team. He was signed as a UDFA by Seattle in 2013, then picked up by Jacksonville when after the Seahawks cut him in October of that year. He stayed in Jacksonville until 2015, but was on injured reserve more than once. Oakland picked him up and put him on the roster later that year, but he was cut in September 2016. Dallas signed him in January. In mini-camp he took the weakside linebacker snaps when Sean Lee wasn’t on the field and impressed.

Others: Joe Jones, Kennan Gilchrist, Lucas Wacha, Darnell Leslie

These UDFAs, from Northwestern, Appalachian State, Wyoming, and Monmouth appear to be real longshots to make the roster.

Analysis

Jaylon Smith is still the unknown factor in the Cowboys’ linebacking corps. If he’s ready for even half the snaps, the Cowboys will likely run with four guys getting nearly all of the snaps - Lee, Smith, Hitchens, and Wilson. Anyone else they keep will need to be a primary special teams player who can step in occasionally if needed to cover for a dinged up player. Last year the Cowboys had a very healthy year at linebacker, but other years the team has not been so lucky.

Wilber is likely to be kept due to his experience and ability to play multiple roles. Beyond that, Nzeocha has not been reliable due to health issues, nor has Lotuelei when he played for the Jags. Perhaps one of the UDFAs will surprise and seize the last spot.

It’s also possible — perhaps likely — the Cowboys will keep their eyes out and add someone not yet on the team. Joseph Hatz suggested Zachary Orr, a talented linebacker for the Ravens who abruptly retired after last season due to a neck injury. Lots of teams have been interested, but they need to run him through a physical first, and he’s said he’s going to visit them all before he makes a decision.

Part I - Offensive Line

Part II - Wide Receiver

Part III - Tight End

Part IV - Quarterback

Part V - Running Back

Part VI - Defensive Line

Part VII - Linebacker

Part VIII - Cornerback

Part IX - Safety

Part X - 53-Man Overview