Cowboys position series: Outside linebackers

The ninth in a series looking at each of the Dallas Cowboys' position groups:

Players: DeMarcus Ware (signed through 2015), Anthony Spencer (signed through 2011), Victor Butler (signed through 2012), Brandon Williams (signed through 2012), Steve Octavien (exclusive rights free agent), Curtis Johnson (signed through 2010)

What went right: Spencer justified the decision to release veteran Greg Ellis by emerging as an impact player.

Spencer was sackless through 10 games, but he was a consistent force against the run (team-high nine tackles for losses) and arguably the Cowboys’ most dominant defensive player down the stretch. He had eight sacks in the final eight games, including the playoffs, serving notice that blocking schemes better also account for the guy on the opposite side of Ware.

Ware was an All-Pro again despite battling through an assortment of injuries that included a stress fracture in his foot, a chip fracture in his wrist, a strained neck and a sore back. He still didn’t miss a game, racking up 11 sacks, 45 quarterback pressures and five forced fumbles.

Ware’s performance in the win over the previously undefeated New Orleans Saints ranks among the most inspirational in franchise history. Six days after being carted off the Cowboys Stadium turf into an ambulance with a neck injury, Ware had two sack-strips, including one that sealed the win.

What went wrong: The Cowboys were counting on one of their fourth-round picks to be a reliable pass-rushing specialist who could spell the starters. That didn’t happen.

Williams, out of Texas Tech, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. His power and quickness had given him a slight edge over Butler coming out of training camp.

Butler had three sacks in limited playing time, but he failed to earn the coaches’ trust. Wade Phillips, who usually goes out of his way to emphasize the positives about his players, did not hesitate to say he didn’t believe Butler was ready for a significant role.

What’s next: The Cowboys locked up Ware with a six-year, $78 million contract extension that includes $40 million guaranteed. While Spencer won’t get that kind of money, he also has a prominent place in the Cowboys’ long-term plans.

The starting outside linebackers are set for years.

The Cowboys are counting on the development of Williams and Butler, so they don’t believe that they need to draft an outside linebacker. However, the presence of last season’s two fourth-rounders won’t prevent the Cowboys from selecting another player at their position if they think it’s a good value pick.