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Friday, June 1, 2012
Position series: Cowboys linebackers

By Dan Graziano


Our continuing effort at a position-by-position assessment of each team in the NFC East takes us to the Dallas Cowboys' linebacker situation.

Projected starters: OLB DeMarcus Ware, OLB Anthony Spencer, ILB Sean Lee, ILB Dan Connor

Reserves: Victor Butler, Bruce Carter, Alex Albright, Orie Lemon, Caleb McSurdy, Kyle Wilber

Potential strength: Ware, obviously, remains one of the elite pass-rushers in the NFL and is the strength of the entire defense. When he is playing at his best, the Cowboys almost don't need to augment their pass rush with help from anyone else. Spencer can stay content in his role as a good run-support linebacker who doesn't attack the quarterback regularly, and Lee can roam the field to break up passes or make open-field tackles. The whole thing runs off of Ware, and his second year in Rob Ryan's defense should offer him a chance to showcase even more versatility as he moves from one side of the field to the other to confuse and terrify opposing offenses.

Potential weakness: Spencer's not a glaring weakness, per se, but he's not the pass-rusher he appeared to be back when the Cowboys were rolling through the end of the 2009 regular season. If he were to step forward as a serious pass-rush threat, it would elevate the Cowboys' defense to a new level and alleviate some pressure on the revamped secondary. But Spencer's had time to show that he's capable of doing that, and he hasn't. So they'll likely have to be content with him being the same player he's been for the past two years -- good, not sensational. Maybe Butler gets more opportunities this year to show what he can do to help the pass rush. But I feel like we said that last year too, right?

Keep an eye on: Carter. The second-year linebacker could conceivably open the season as the starter next to Lee. The Cowboys signed Connor in part because they weren't sure they could count on Carter to be ready to be a starter this year. But they believe in Carter's ability and think he can ultimately develop into something special. The question is timetable, and the extent to which he'll get a chance to show in training camp and the preseason how healthy he is. If he gets a lot of preseason playing time and does well in it, he has the chance to supplant Connor around the beginning of the season. If not, he'll have to play his way into a starter's role from the backup spot as the season goes along. But once he's ready, the Cowboys expect Carter to be a high-impact player, not just a guy who starts because they don't have anyone else to do it.