While all eyes have been on the major upgrades in the Dallas Cowboys' cornerbacks this year, another defensive unit has also seen some very important additions. The changes being made in the linebacking corps, along with one established star and another who began to emerge in 2011, may make this the heart of the Cowboys defense in 2012.
Of course, it is always good to have players like pass rushing OLB DeMarcus Ware and human weapon ILB Sean Lee as your foundation. Ware continues to play at a very high level, and has been looking like his usual self in training camp. He has also been schooling second-year LT Tyron Smith, which is a good thing. Smith even stunned some people by pancaking Ware on one play, which shows that the lessons may be taking - but Ware is still one of the premier pass rushers in the league, and the widely discussed upgrades in the secondary can only benefit him this year.
Sean Lee is showing signs of becoming a dominant inside linebacker. A superb combination of physical ability and football smarts, he is a fan favorite. And for good reason, with four interceptions last year to go with his team leading 105 tackles. He may be a force for the Cowboys for most or all of this decade.
But last year, he did not have much support on the inside. An aging Bradie James and an already aged Keith Brooking combined had eleven fewer tackles than Lee. In many games, particularly against the Philadelphia Eagles, the middle of the defense where they had responsibility was a land of opportunity for opposing quarterbacks.
That has almost certainly changed. Second year player Bruce Carter brings even more athleticism to the inside and has been showing off his quickness and playmaking ability. And free agent pickup Dan Connor, Lee's teammate from their college days at Penn State, is very savvy and much more capable than either James or Brooking. In training camp, they have been splitting time with the first team, and will likely continue to rotate in and out, with Connor being primarily a first and second down player, while Carter is brought in for obvious passing situations. That gaping hole that used to exist in the middle is very likely going to be a tiny window this year.
Opposite Ware on the strong side, Anthony Spencer returns. Dallas used the franchise tag to sign him, a controversial move (at least for the media and fans), but statistically Spencer is one of the best strongside OLBs in the game. He has a bad reputation because of the lack of sacks from him (although his six were the second highest on the team behind Ware's tremendous 19.5). But like Ware, he should benefit from better coverage by the secondary, and he has always been impressive against the run.
While those five players are pretty much etched in stone for the final roster, barring injury, of course, the fight for the backup jobs are going to be fierce. On the outside, rookie fourth-round pick Kyle Wilber is likely to win a spot, probably backing Spencer up. He has shown some flashes early and seems to be coming along after missing much of the offseason due to injury. Victor Butler has had a good camp and is looking strong to continue in his role as Ware's primary backup. He is getting a challenge from UDFA Adrian Hamilton, a pass rushing specialist from Prairie View A&M. Hamilton has been a little spotty so far in camp, but does show some improvement, and could become a candidate, especially if the team carries a fifth OLB.
The leading candidate to be a fourth ILB is Orie Lemon. He is having a strong camp, and his familiarity with the system from a year on the practice squad looks to be paying off. He has likely made seventh-round pick Caleb McSurdy's best hope to take Lemon's place on the practice squad.
One player that might supplant either Lemon or Hamilton is Alex Albright. He also is putting in a strong showing, and he is a swing player, able to go inside or outside. This might give him a leg up. Jason Garrett is a big believer in "multiplicity", and if Albright is about even with either of those in the coaches' eyes, he would be a good bet to take a spot away from one of them. If the team could manage to keep five players for both ILB and OLB, he would almost certainly be tapped for the final 53.
As mentioned, McSurdy is likely to find himself on waivers at the end of the year, barring a sudden charge late in camp.
The only other linebacker remaining in camp, Baraka Atkins, is highly unlikely to last. (Aston Whiteside was cut to make room for the return of Cole Beasley after his strange departure and return to camp.)
However the team goes, the linebacking corps is all but guaranteed to be better than in 2011, particularly on the inside, and possibly deeper as well. This has been somewhat overshadowed by the bigger names acquired at cornerback, but it may be even more significant.