The Dallas Cowboys have a good problem at inside linebacker. Second-year pro Bruce Carter missed most of his rookie season recovering from knee surgery, but ran with the Cowboys’ first-team defense during Wednesday’s OTAs. It was just disclosed Wednesday that free agent signee Dan Connor had off-season shoulder surgery as well, but he’ll give Carter a run for his money in training camp.
The Cowboys have a defensive anchor in third-year linebacker Sean Lee, who will be in the discussion for the game’s top linebacker by mid-season. Lee is already arguably the purest tackler in the NFL and he’s the most consistent player on the entire team, although that isn’t saying a whole lot after thinking about it.
Lee will start at one of the inside linebacker spots in Rob Ryan’s variable 3-4 scheme; that’s a given. However, the competition for the other spot is up for grabs and, fortunately for Dallas, there are two excellent candidates for the job.
Carter reminds many of a young Keith Brooking; he reads the offense quickly and is a big, tough tackler. Connor has a very similar style of play and he was a college teammate of Lee’s. Teams with only solid starters at any position, but especially linebacker, don’t consistently play at a high level. The Cowboys now have solid depth at the inside linebacker position and that’s more valuable than a decent starter at another position.
The Cowboys were solid against the run in 2011, giving an NFL 7th-best 99.1 yards per game, mainly due to Lee’s incredible tackling ability. However, the eight big runs (20 yards or more) against Dallas hurt the team in critical moments and over three-fourths of those runs resulted from missed tackles by then-Cowboys linebackers Bradie James and Brooking.
That’s not to say those veterans didn’t serve Dallas well during their heydays, but 2011 was definitely a subpar season for both players. With young guns like Carter and Connor rotating in alongside Lee, the Cowboys shouldn’t give up many big runs for the foreseeable future.
Consistent play like that is contagious, too. Dallas made significant upgrades in the secondary this off-season and watching big plays from their linebackers will encourage those new guys to play at their highest ability, which is something the Cowboys definitely lacked over the past two seasons.
“[Carter has] really come into the offseason program and embraced it,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s gotten better physically. I think he’s healthier than he was last year at this time certainly. You can just see he’s getting more and more comfortable. He needs to play more football.”
All this talk about Carter and Connor might make one forget about Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who put up another monster year in 2011 with 19.5 sacks. On the other side, Dallas has Anthony Spencer, who recorded a career-high 6.0 sacks last season and was franchise tagged by the team this off-season. While Spencer’s future beyond 2012 is still up in the air, Dallas has a solid replacement in line with Victor Butler.
Butler has competition with 2012 fourth-round pick Kyle Wilber, which makes Dallas’ linebacking situation even more interesting. The Cowboys’ inside linebacker spots are obviously set for the foreseeable future, but the outside slots are rock solid as well.
Unless Spencer breaks out this season, he’s likely gone this time next year. Butler is more than capable of taking over as the starter right now and especially will be by then. Likewise, Wilber presents a challenge for the starting position and will provide solid depth if Butler does indeed win the starting job for 2013.
Earlier this off-season, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he wanted a linebacking corps that resembles the San Francisco 49ers’ and while many thought he was crazy then, that isn’t such a farfetched fantasy now. Lee and Ware are monsters, the combination of Connor and Carter will provide a solid match at the other inside spot, depth is there across the board and the outside spot opposite Ware is in good shape with all the competition. All things considered, there’s really no season the Cowboys shouldn’t have one of the NFL’s top group of linebackers in 2012.