Kyle Wilber Will be X-Factor for Dallas Cowboys' Pass Rush

By Jeric Griffin

The Dallas Cowboys coaching staff gets its feathers ruffled when asked about the team’s plans on improving the pass rush. That’s very interesting because that aspect of Dallas’ game was horrific the past two seasons and contributed to what many consider a disappointing first year for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Despite the animosity, the Cowboys can’t deny that 2012 fourth-round pick Kyle Wilber will be a key part of the pass rush this season and beyond.

Two of the Cowboys’ first three picks in the 2012 NFL Draft were pass-rushers; both Wilber and third-round pick Tyrone Crawford were drafted for one reason: to improve the pass rush. Ryan is a defensive genius and he recently changed the minds of many regarding Dallas outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, but he was a little too kind toward his underachieving players on Tuesday.

“We have the talent there, and we’ll just see how it goes,” Ryan said. “I’m excited about it. I’m not going to say everything I believe, but I’ve got a feeling we will be just fine.”

The Cowboys didn’t have the talent there last season – that’s why defensive ends Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman combined for only 5.5 sacks on the season. Folks, including Ryan, like to say that Cowboys stud pass-rushers DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff were double-teamed “a lot” in 2011, yet the extra attention they received didn’t equal more sacks for Coleman and Hatcher. Therefore, the Cowboys did not “have the talent there” last year.

Dallas might actually have such talent now, but that remains to be seen as rookies Crawford and Wilber each prepare for their first pro season. Ryan said Sunday that Spencer is “a damn good football player,” but that doesn’t reflect the mindset of an organization that spent a fourth-round pick on a highly-touted Day 3 outside linebacker.

Spencer was a free agent before the Cowboys franchise tagged him in March, keeping him in Dallas for at least one more year, so he gets one more shot to prove he’s worth a contract extension. However, he’ll have to compete with Wilber and fourth-year pro Victor Butler for the permanent job. Both players have been praised by coaches and executives alike over the past few weeks; Ryan on Wilber and team owner Jerry Jones on Butler. On Tuesday:

“He’s a smart kid. He plays hard,” Ryan said. “He knows how to cover, which is a hard thing for an outside linebacker. All they do is rush in college. Well, this kid knows how to cover. He’s going to be a lot further advanced than most rookies are. The kid’s got a lot of talent, so we hope he’ll be able to help.”

Almost exactly a month earlier, Jones talked like Butler was a surefire starter.

“We’re high on Butler,” Jones said. “We think Butler is somebody who can really give us the pass rush.”

Yeah, right…and Barry Switzer is the best coach in Cowboys history; get real. The Cowboys may be fond of Butler, and definitely should be, but Jones can’t say that, draft two pass-rushers two weeks later and then expect everyone to believe this horse radish that the Cowboys already “have talent” there.

Thus, it’ll be interesting to see which player gets the boot in 2013 – Spencer, Butler or Wilber. Seeing as how Butler and Spencer are both in contract years and Wilber was just drafted, it’s safe to say it’s a two-man race between Butler and Spencer. A wise bet here would be Butler.

That means Wilber’s role with the team will be very important over the next four seasons. Once he signs his four-year rookie deal, he’ll officially be inserted into the lineup in these unique situations about which Ryan said Wilber can “help” the Cowboys.

Wilber’s effectiveness at the pro level is still a mystery, but Ryan obviously thinks he’s better equipped for the next level than most outside linebackers coming out of college. Since Ryan specifically spoke of pass coverage, Wilber might be used more as a cover linebacker in certain packages, especially as a rookie. If so, then his pass-rushing ability becomes a bonus rather than a necessity, making him the X-Factor of the Cowboys’ pass rush.

If Wilber covers like Ryan says he can and then displays a pass-rushing ability at least equal to Spencer’s then the elder player has signed his last deal in Dallas. Butler and Wilber both have a chance to break out in 2012 while Spencer fights to keep his job, but if he’s used in special packages, which Ryan loves to do, Wilber will have a leg up in the competition.

In short, the Cowboys’ pass rush was not up to par in 2011, no matter what anyone inside the organization says. However, Wilber presents a very interesting scenario in the future of Dallas’ pass rush, one in which likely won’t include Spencer if Wilber is as good as advertised.

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