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Making The Case For Dallas Drafting A Linebacker

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Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images.
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images.

How concerned should the Dallas Cowboys really be about their linebackers? It’s been an easy offseason concern to overlook. Between Rod Marinelli’s promotion to defensive coordinator and the losses of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, the focus has, understandably, stayed on the defensive line. And due to just about every aspect of its 2013 performance, the secondary is never far from fan and media scrutiny.

Yet, as noted here by Dave Halprin of bloggingtheboys.com, there’s cause for distress in the linebacking corps as well. Sean Lee’s slate of three-to-four missed games per year has coincided with season-ending injuries to both Bruce Carter (2012) and Justin Durant (2013). Carter regressed in pass coverage in 2013, while Durant saw Kyle Wilber take over the starting strong-side job. The best new player of the 2013 corps, OLB DeVonte Holloman, showed flashes of pass-rushing promise. But he’s green, and he has a higher risk for injury as a special teams man.

Suffice it to say, the position is worth considering come draft day(s). But to get a marquee linebacker like UCLA’s Anthony Barr — or much-needed DT Aaron Donald for that matter — the Cowboys would likely have to trade up from No. 16. Also, we’ve just listed five linebackers likely to make the 53-man roster, and the Cowboys may not go with more than six.

So where should their draft focus for the position lie? Would it be smart for them to take a linebacker in the third or fourth round if offensive players with higher grades were still on the board? Absolutely. Particularly an inside linebacker with pass coverage abilities, because when Lee is out, the whole defensive mojo is off. The ‘Boys really need a player who can curb the drop-off.

Holloman is a talent, but at 243 pounds, he’s a Sam linebacker and an edge rusher, not a cover guy. He’ll get his chances to contribute with a depleted D-line this year. But what the ‘Boys need from their linebackers is cover skills — particularly the ability to match strides with receivers on longer routes, and to play them physically coming off the line of scrimmage. Or, in other words, to staunch the yards-after-catch gains. One of the great mysteries of 2013’s historically bad pass defense was the absence of press coverage and the soft cushioning given to receivers on dink-and-dunk passes. The linebackers need to be a part of that changing.

It’s also true that Marinelli’s defense requires a four-man front to consistently generate pressure and that the Cowboys currently lack the personnel for that. But whether Dallas can find a quality D-lineman in the draft in the first or second round and Marinelli can coach the newcomers up. He certainly did last year.

So that’s the Cowboy linebackers and the draft. It’s been a position swept out of the spotlight for much of the offseason. Come May, Dallas should be keen to change that by adding an immediate contributor and quality backup to the corps.