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How Kyle Wilber's Role Has Changed In Dallas

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Second-year DE Kyle Wilber now has a little bit more riding on his shoulders than when training camp began. Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images.
Second-year DE Kyle Wilber now has a little bit more riding on his shoulders than when training camp began. Photo by Layne Murdoch/Getty Images.

Week 1 of the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp was all about the defensive ends, and if there’s one pass rusher whose number is truly about to be called, it’s second-year man Kyle Wilber.

To recap: Over the last seven days, Dallas saw Tyrone Crawford (Achilles) go down for the season, had Anthony Spencer (knee) undergo surgery that will sideline him for several weeks and signed free agent George Selvie as a roster long-shot.

Wilber now claims the title of No. 3 defensive end on a defense that has banked on pass rushing being a major strength. Utilized as an outside linebacker in 2012, Wilber has long been preparing for the switch to defensive end, gaining nearly 15 pounds this offseason. Now at 254 pounds, he’s still undersized for a player at his position with modest (4.6 40-yard dash) speed, but does retain the advantage of having played defensive end in college.

According to Spencer, Wilber’s game is predicated on his first-step timing and quickness. He’s not going to be emulating DeMarcus Ware and winning half his battles through brute strength alone. Perhaps the most important contribution he can make is sound tackling, because although he’ll occasionally benefit from double-teams on Ware or Spencer, Wilber won’t get the sack opportunities they get.  His techniques simply can’t be honed to perfection that quickly, nor can his natural snap count timing on the NFL level. Consequently, the Cowboys need a player like Wilber to convert every time he gets free in the backfield. And in taking reps with the first team, he’s thus far shown himself capable of doing that.

The show of instinct that marks a good defensive end is hard to quantify. But Wilber, who recently said he was disappointed with his rookie season, seems to be exhibiting it more fully this year. It’s something the Cowboys need to be very focused on continuing to develop, because right now it looks like Wilber’s snaps and expected production are about to be elevated.

But will this heightened role ultimately help or hurt the team? Spencer is expected to be ready for the season opener; Wilber should get most of his reps in practice between now and then. Is that enough time for him to become an adequate contributor?

The biggest concern lies in the scheduling and the subsequent premium on early-season wins. The Cowboys have some accurate drop-back passers to contend with in the opening weeks — Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning — quarterbacks who are deadly with time in the pocket. If they don’t generate some pressure, they’ll be seriously hurting their chances during this stretch of must-win games.

Wilber has to produce throughout this stint, wherein the competition is lightest, while Spencer is shaking off any rustiness and the rest of the D-line is figuring out its rotation and synchronicity.

Of course, the window is more than open for other defensive ends. But the Cowboys seem invested in Wilber, and he seems capable of being a legitimate contributor, albeit not a top playmaker. But that notion is far from as certain as the fact that Dallas is dangerously bereft of quality depth at defensive end, and that Wilber purports to be the first and most obvious piece of the solution.