This week I’ll be taking a look at the linebackers, which are a bright sport for the Cowboys. With a switch to the 4-3, we should be very excited for our linebackers. There is a possibility that the defensive switch will hinder their play, but I believe that they will make the transition easily. Let’s begin with our middle linebacker, Sean Lee.
Sean Lee has been a fan favorite in Dallas. I’m not surprised; he’s a pretty complete player. The thing that sticks out the most for me is Lee’s intelligence. When I watch him, he’s always around the football. It is almost as if he knows what the offense is doing beforehand. Against run plays, his intelligence really helps. He knows which gaps to attack and is efficient in stopping the run. In coverage, Lee is amazing. In particular, I like Lee in zone coverage. He can read the quarterbacks eyes and can make plays on the ball.
When I watch Lee, he is everywhere, which is perfect for Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 defense. On run plays, the middle linebacker needs to be able to stop the run effectively. On passing plays, they are dropping back deep. This means the middle linebacker has to be able to cover a lot of range. Lee’s intelligence will help him be at the right spot at the right time. There is one concern with Sean Lee though, he gets injured quite often. This season we need him to stay healthy.
Let’s move on to the weakside linebacker. Bruce Carter, like Lee, has been injured often. However, he’s shown some flashes when Lee went down last season. The one thing that sticks out to me about Carter is his speed. It was reported that he ran a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash. That’s ridiculous, that’s just as fast as a wide receiver! That speed is going to be asset as a weakside linebacker. Carter is great at getting to the runningback. He is also good on man coverage. Carter covered mainly tight ends last year, but he has the speed to cover runningbacks as well. Like Lee, Carter is good in both passing and running situations. We should expect to see both of them in the nickel and dime packages. I liked Carter more in man coverage than zone, but Carter’s speed and athleticism should make him effective in either coverage.
For the strongside linebacker, there is a bit of a position battle. I’m first going to talk about our free agent signing, Justin Durant. He has experience playing strongside linebacker in both Detriot and Jacksonville. In this role, Durant is known as a good run defender. He has good athleticism and can take on blocks. He is a liability in coverage though. Right now, Durant is expected to be the starting strongside linebacker for the Cowboys.
With all the injuries to our linebacker last year, Alex Albright got a chance to play. In particular, the game he had against the Steelers was great. Albright was an outside linebacker in the 3-4, but showed versatility in playing all four linebacker positions. This makes me believe that he’ll transition well to the 4-3. I liked what I saw from Albright. First, he’s a pretty big linebacker at 6’5, 260lb. Albright was a former defensive end, so I can see him playing a role like Von Miller or Mathias Kiwanuka in our defense. With that kind of size, he should be able to hold his ground against blockers in the run game. You would think that a former defensive end would struggle in coverage, but against Pittsburgh last year he did a fine job in coverage. It’s a small sample size though, and I would like to see more of him before making any assumptions. Albright has shown great versatility, and is developing well as an outside linebacker. He’s expected to be a backup next year, but his versatility will earn him plenty of playing time.
The last linebacker I’m going to examine is Ernie Sims. We signed Sims last year when injuries struck. He did a fine job last year for us. I don’t expect Sims to play on the strongside. He’s a bit small, and his athleticism makes him a better fit for the weakside. Sims will most likely be our primary backup for the weakside linebacker. Sims was effective in man coverage, but has shown struggle in zone. He also could work on his tackling. He’ll mainly be a depth player and may come in during passing situations to spell Lee or Carter.
The linebackers are going to be an exciting group for the Cowboys. We have two good players starting, and lots of depth behind them. All three starters excel against the run, but are also a good fit for their respective position. I predicted that the defensive line will struggle against the run, so hopefully the linebackers will be able to shade that weakness. If the defensive line can take on blockers and let the linebackers make play, our run defense should be solid. In coverage, Lee, Carter, and Sims are solid. I’m expecting us to rotate Sims in passing situation. Albright will find a way on the field as an outside linebacker or defensive end. I’m very excited for this group, and can’t wait to watch them next year.