The eighth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:
What’s new?: Bruce Carter could be the biggest beneficiary of the switch to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme. Carter is the prototype to play the Will linebacker.
It’s premature to compare Carter to former Tampa Bay great Derrick Brooks, the standard for the position, but that’s what happens when Brooks’ old coordinator coaches a Will linebacker with Carter’s ability. There might not be a faster linebacker in the league, and this scheme will allow Carter to fly to the football without having to take on nearly as many blocks as he did as a 3-4 inside linebacker.
The same is true to a lesser extent for Sean Lee as the middle linebacker. The former high school safety’s playmaking ability in pass coverage will be spotlighted in a scheme that often requires him to drop deep down the middle of the field.
The Cowboys made addressing the depth of the linebacker corps an offseason priority, although they didn’t spend a lot of money to do it. Justin Durant is a proven starting Sam linebacker who signed a two-year, $2.4 million deal. They drafted DeVonte Holloman in the sixth round despite having a higher grade on Brandon Magee, who they gave $70,000 in guaranteed money to sign as an undrafted free agent.
Camp competition: The battles for the backup jobs will be intense.
How many linebackers will the Cowboys keep? Six? Seven?
Ernie Sims is a veteran insurance policy. Alex Albright is the most versatile of the bunch, capable of playing two linebacker spots and defensive end in a pinch and serving as one of the Cowboys’ best special-teams players. Holloman and Magee are intriguing rookies. Of the bubble guys, 2012 seventh-rounder McSurdy probably has the longest odds after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in last year’s camp.
2013 hope: Lee and Carter can be one of the league’s elite linebacker combos -- if they can stay healthy. And that’s a big if for a couple of guys who dropped into the second round because of college knee injuries and who have had bad medical luck in their brief NFL careers.
But the hope is that the Cowboys have a couple of linebackers who will be sideline-to-sideline, every-down forces for years to come.
If those two stay healthy and the play at Sam is solid, the linebacker corps should be a major strength for the Cowboys in 2013.
Future forecast: Look for Lee to get a long-term contract extension before the beginning of the season. The Cowboys are looking for him to be a leader of this defense for a long time.
Can the Cowboys afford to pay Carter, too? It might be his turn for a rich extension next offseason, when he’ll be entering the final year of his rookie deal. Just remember that Jerry Jones tends to find ways to keep successful draft picks around Valley Ranch.
If the Cowboys keep Lee and Carter for the long haul, they can fill the Sam spot with low-cost players, whether they’re journeymen like Durant or draft picks.