posted Wednesday, August 02, 2006 10:00 PM
I can remember that familiar sinking feeling after realizing the Cowboys' linebacking corps would remain pat through the 3-4 transition the defense ultimately had to go through following the 2005 off-season. Most reports had pegged Bradie James as the aloof linebacker of the olden days, Dat Nguyen as too small, DeMarcus Ware as too young and Scott Fujita as too... average.
We know it ended up being a serviceable unit, but a year later and it seems Mike Zimmer is dealing with a group of experienced linebackers who could actually anchor a top five defensive unit. They always say things can change overnight in today's NFL, and the Dallas linebacking corps illustrates that perfectly.\
Bradie James obviously came out of his shell and shed that marvelous title of most detatched defensive player, due in no small part to the familiar 3-4, and DeMarcus Ware's eight sacks proved that even rookies can alter the course of a game. His sack to open the Eagles' offensive march in Week 5 probably changed the course of that game in the Cowboys' favor.
All of the sudden, undersized Dat - who often performed far above his stature - has been replaced by oversized and overtalented Akin Ayodele, and our only other question mark has been erased by the blonde locks of a great looking first round pick.
And the depth here - it can make your head spin. Kevin Burnett is a second round pick and former captain at Tennessee who we've seen very little of, and Kai Parham was, in my estimation, the biggest steal of the entire post-draft signing period. Compliment those two guys with the returning backups and some undrafted free agents with some very impressive measurables, and it appears that the competition will be neverending, even as the season progresses. In a 3-4 scheme, depth at linebacker is just about as essential as it gets.
So while half of the linebacking corps remains from a season ago, the players you're likely to see this year will be much different than those you saw in 2005. Ware will have a compliment to his speed rush in the way of more moves at the line of scrimmage and Bradie James seems to have improved his game in every way imagineable. And if the Cowboys don't give him a contract before the season starts, the added bonus of playing hard in his contract year could be yet another accelerating factor to his game.
The linebackers this year remind me a ton of the cornerbacks from last year. The Cowboys made a couple big-time moves for corners, and despite the injuries, it ended up as one of the team's most solid positions. Lets hope this year is the linebackers' turn. This unit is a far cry from the questions we had here from last year, and we can be absolutely certain that they only stand to benefit from playing along with one another as training camp wears on.