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Draft Series 7 of 9: Linebackers

Of all the positions on the Cowboys, linebacker might be the best.  The Cowboys have one of the best sets of linebackers in the entire NFL.  With the emergence of OLB Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys linebacking core has become very formidable.  With the talent the Cowboys have, and after investing four picks last year in the draft, it would be very surprising if the Cowboys added to the stable through this year’s draft.

Outside Linebackers:

DeMarcus Ware (starter) – Since he was drafted in the 2005 NFL entry draft (11 overall) D-Ware has become the best outside linebacker in the NFL.  Up until this past season his sack totals had climbed faster the the US debt.  Last year he did suffer a setback, although it is tough to maintain a 20 sack season.  Ware started the year off slowly and then suffered multiple injuries as the season progressed.  He still managed to attain 11 sacks.  Ware brings a lot more than just his sacks to the Cowboys defence.  He has to be double teamed on every play allowing other players to get favorable match-ups.  Ware is also good in coverage.  He runs extremely well and has tremendous awareness.  His only weakness is he can get pushed around when teams run right at him.  It is early, but Ware might be the best linebacker to every don a Cowboys uniform.

Anthony Spencer (starter) – When the Cowboys release OLB Greg Ellis at the end of the 2008/09 season, all eyes were on Anthony Spencer to replace him.  In his first year as a Cowboys starter, Spencer started very slowly.  It always seemed like Spencer was an inch or two away from making the big plays.  Then, Thanksgiving against the Raiders, Spencer broke through.  He rattled off 6 sacks the last month of the season and started making some big plays.  He became a weapon opposite of Ware and teams were starting to take notice.  If Spencer can pick up where he left off the Cowboys are going to have a very stout pair of outside linebackers.

Victor Butler – One of the biggest surprises of last season had to be the play of Victor Butler.  Not much was expected of the fourth round pick from Oregon State.  Like Spencer, Butler came on strong halfway through the season and showed his speed and athletic ability.  He will fight for more playing time this year after getting 3 sacks in very limited playing time.  Butler might be the steal of last year’s draft.

Steve Octavien – While Octavien shares the name with the likes of the Roman Empire, he has not showed that kind of ferociousness on the field, at least not in the regular season.  While Octavien has put together some good preseason flashes at linebacker, his main area of contribution is special teams.  Octavien has been very valuable on special teams and it is unlikely the second year man will change that this year.

Jason Williams – Last year’s first pick in the third round played in only five games last year.  While he was fighting off injuries through the beginning of the season, he was also clearly outshone by Butler.  Williams is looking to make a statement this camp and prove he was worth the selection.  The Cowboys like his speed and playmaking ability, now they just need to see it.

Other notables:

1) Brandon Williams – The Cowboys have high hopes for Williams who was having a good camp before going on injured reserve for the remainder of last season.  Last year’s fellow fourth round pick will look to make a statement this year.

2) Curtis Johnson – Johnson came over from Indianapolis early in the season last year.  He did not make much of an impact and will look to crack a crowded roster this season.

Draft Prospects at Outside Linebacker:

1) Sergio Kindle (Texas) 6’4, 254 lbs. – Kindle has proven that he can play as a defensive end in the 4-3, or an outside linebacker in either the 3-4 or 4-3. Speed, strength, athleticism and size are off the charts. He has elite-level speed and closing quickness. Kindle is very fast off the ball and has experience playing in the three-point and two-point stances. He shows great explosion and has a good bull rush that he will use to overrun backs in blitz pick-up.

2) Daryl Washington (Texas Christian) 6’3, 234 lbs. – The leader of the Texas Christian defense, Washington has been a stand out performer for several years. His combination of size and athleticism will suit him well in the pros.  He has great speed and can diagnose plays very quickly.

3) Brandon Graham (Michigan) 6’2, 263 lbs. – Graham is probably the best pass rusher in the draft.  He is very explosive and can attack from multiple positions.  He is very good against the run.  He does a great job of turning ball carriers back inside and right into his linebackers. Couple that with his quick first step and wide array of pass rushing maneuvers, and he drawn a lot of comparisons to Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts.

Other Notables:

1) Eric Norwood (South Carolina) 6’0, 252 lbs.
2) Sean Weatherspoon (Missouri) 6’1, 235 lbs.
3) Jerry Hughes (Texas Christian) 6’2, 248 lbs.

Inside Linebackers

Bradie James (starter) – Ware might be the flash of the defence but James is at it’s heart.  Bradie is the most underrated middle linebacker in the league.  He finished with 113 tackles (most on the team) and was fighting partner Keith Brooking for the lead all season.  James is an explosive leader.  He lets his play do his talking but also is an emotional leader.  He rarely misses a tackle.  His sacks went down a lot this year but he was not asked to blitz as much with the arrival of Brooking.  James will be back to lead this group again this year and will be out to prove something after being overlooked, again, for the Pro Bowl.

Keith Brooking (starter) – No other import to the roster made the kind of impact Brooking did.  He brought a toughness and a swagger that the team lacked.  He is a firery competitor who loves to hit.  He finished with 106 tackles and 3.0 sacks.  While Brooking is getting up there in years, he proved he plays at a level beyond most linebackers in the league and made the Cowboys brass look like geniuses for bringing him in.

Bobby Carpenter – Carpenter was starting to look like a draft day bust.  Entering his fourth year in the league this 18th overall pick in 2006 looks to have found a niche in the nickel defence.  When ILB Kevin Burnett was allowed to leave to free agency last season, Carpenter had all eyes on him.  He responded by shutting down some of the league top tight ends and allowing the Cowboys to have a much improved third down defence.  Carpenter also plays very well on special teams and will look to improve upon a solid season.

Other Notables:

1) Stephen Hodge – The rookie from TCU spent all last season on injured reserve.  He had impressive stats in college and is looking to provide some depth to the inside linebacker spot.  He will challenge Carpenter for playing time.

Draft Prospects at Inside Linebacker

1) Brandon Spikes (Flordia) 6’3, 256 lbs. – If Spikes had entered the 2009 NFL Draft, he would have likely been a first-round selection. Spikes is a good athlete who has optimum size. His speed isn’t the best, but he’s a box linebacker. Possesses outstanding recognition ability. He is a very good block shedder and tackler.  He’ll be an immediate starter.

2) Rolando McClain (Alabama) 6’4, 248 lbs. – McClain is the most sure-thing as a middle linebacker prospect in the draft since Patrick Willis. He’s a prototypical combination of size, athleticism and intelligence. He’s strong and rangy. Playing on the inside, McClain doesn’t wait for the ball carrier to come at him, he attacks.

3) Pat Angerer (Iowa) 6’0, 235 lbs. – Angerer rates so highly mainly because he can stay on the field for all three downs and will be a great special teams player. He’s smart and rough, which helps him overcome some physical and athletic deficiencies. He really came on as a junior and senior as Iowa’s unquestioned leader on defense.

Other Notables:

1) Sean Lee (Penn State) 6’2, 234 lbs.
2) Donald Butler (Washington) 6’1, 244 lbs.
3) Jamar Chaney (Mississippi State) 6’1, 245 lbs.

Next Up: Cornerbacks

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