Cowboys position series: Inside linebacker

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
11:00
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This is the eighth installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at inside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Zumapress/Icon SMISean Lee had four interceptions and five games with 10-plus total tackles in 2011.
Players: Bradie James (free agent), Sean Lee (signed through 2013), Bruce Carter (signed through 2014), Keith Brooking (free agent).

Top free agents: London Fletcher, Washington Redskins; David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks; D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns; Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions; Dan Connor, Carolina Panthers.

Top draft prospects: Luke Kuechly, Boston College; Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State; Dont'a Hightower, Alabama; Mychal Kendricks, Cal; Audie Cole, N.C. State.

2011 review: A changing of the guard occurred as Lee emerged as the full-time starter and force in the middle of the 3-4 defense. Lee had five games with 10-plus total tackles and 10 games with five or more tackles. James and Brooking took the reduced playing time like true professionals, and offered to play special teams to help the team. Carter didn't get going until later in the season as he recovered from knee surgery. He should have gotten more playing time as the season progressed, but it seemed the coaches relied on the veterans.

Offseason preview: James and Brooking most likely will not return. The Cowboys want to go younger at this spot and it appears they have the two players to take them into the future with Lee and Carter. Depth is a major issue here if James and Brooking are gone. Cowboys most likely will need to draft an inside linebacker or possibly find a veteran in free agency willing to be a backup. Lee was a force against the run and pass last season and there is some concern if Carter can duplicate that. Carter has the athletic gifts to become a good player and might be better suited to rush off the edge sometimes. This group has gotten faster with Carter getting full-time snaps.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: We saw this position begin to change when Lee was paired with James and then with Brooking. There will be another transition from James and Brooking to Carter, who early in the season was given an opportunity to finish games with mixed results. To Carter's credit, he was much better later in the season with his fits and reads, which gave me hope that he was adjusting to what the coaches were asking him to do. I really like Carter and I liked him a year ago when I studied him at North Carolina but coming off that knee injury was probably more than he realized. The problem for the Cowboys will not be Carter and Lee, but who is behind them? This front office has struggled to bring young players through the draft other than the two I mentioned. Orie Lemon is a college free agent who spent the year on the practice squad but other than him, that is it. This front office can not afford to miss on picks like it did with players like Jason Williams. Look for them to be aggressive not only in the draft but in college free agency, which is an area where they usually find a player or two because depth here is beyond thin.

Need meter (0-5): 3
Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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