THE WULF DEN: POSITIONAL PREVIEW – LB JULY 30, 2004 This is the sixth part of an eight-part preview of the positional battles Cowboy fans can look forward to in training camp beginning July 31st. In this sixth segment, we will look at the linebackers, where the starters return from last year, but will be pushed for playing time. Head Coach Bill Parcells told reporters that, last season, rookie Bradie James could hardly lift a Kleenex. You can imagine what he’s had to live with since then. Questions from reporters. Snickers and looks from his teammates. Tissue boxes appearing in his locker. It’s the kind of thing that lends itself to ridicule. So what did James do about it? He did exactly what Parcells had hoped. He hit the weight room and worked. And worked. And worked. Now, he is one of the most improved players, according to Parcells, and one of the stronger ones as well. And how did Parcells reward him? He has allowed him to split time with veteran and former all-pro starter Dexter Coakley during mini-camps—something that Parcells says will continue in training camp. Will he supplant Coakley as the starter this year? It’s doubtful, even Big Bill saying that he expects Coakley to win the job. But the Cowboys are going to be using some 3-4 defensive looks this year, and James will play a huge role in that. He will also likely be the first guy off the bench for substitution in the LB corps, and should add a lot on special teams. This kind of thing shouldn’t surprise us…not from Parcells. He is the master motivator—and manipulator, if needs be—and has always used up-and-coming young players to challenge and push veterans. The results are usually good, with both players being made better for having gone through the process, and the same should be true for the Cowboys’ linebackers this year. So, as the Cowboys arrive in Oxnard, let’s look at the linebackers, and what we can expect from them as a unit. Linebackers Dat Nguyen Nguyen is one of those players who didn’t have the size that Parcells likes in his LBs, but proved himself to Big Bill last year. The question is, can he stay healthy two seasons in a row. Dat started all 16 games in 1999, 2001, and last season. But he only played in 10 games in 2000, and in only 8 in 2002. If that pattern continues, he’s due to get injured and miss about half the season this year. Now we all hope that doesn’t happen, and Dat will be in good enough condition that it will take a fluke injury to sideline him. But it adds extra incentive to finding quality depth, not that the Cowboys need it. And finding depth that can fill Dat’s production is not exactly an easy prospect. Over the last three years (prorating 2002 into a full 16 game schedule), Dat has averaged 87 tackles per season, 1 sack, 5 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Of course, if he does get injured, other players will have to pick up the slack around his replacement. But his value is based on more than just his play on the field, and that they can’t afford to lose. Dexter Coakley It’s ironic that Coakley is the player being pushed for his starting spot when he is the most consistent of the entire unit, having never produced 80 or fewer tackles in a season. He has played in every game since his rookie season save one, and has started every game in which he’s played. He has averaged 93 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 INTs, 4 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. And he seems to be the guy that makes a big play when one is needed. Now he has lost a step, make no mistake, and it’s for that reason that Parcells is pushing him to make sure he stays on top of his game. But unless Bradie James kicks his game up so high that he can’t be overlooked, expect Dexter to still be the starter come week one. Alshermond Singleton If there is a starting LB on the roster that should be challenged for his job, it’s Singleton. This guy had one good season in Tampa Bay following four mediocre seasons, and hasn’t really been challenged for his starting job since arriving. Many fans—myself included—had hoped that Markus Steele might apply that pressure, having started on the strong side as a rookie. But Steele has had to develop into a better than average special teams player just to keep his roster spot, and there hasn’t been anyone else that has had the game to challenge Singleton. James probably could—and would, if I were the coach—but that’s Parcells’ call. As it is, it will likely take a dominant performance from Steele—coupled with a so-so performance by Singleton—for him to lose his starting job. I don’t expect that to happen, so Cowboys fans had better hope for continued development instead. Bradie James As I mentioned, above, the second-year man out of LSU has built up his strength dramatically this offseason, and is getting the opportunity to run with the first string defense every other day during training camp. It will be an invaluable experience for him, even if Coakley retains his starting job. As a rookie, James played in 14 games, recording 12 tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. One way or another, the Cowboys want to get him on the field more this season. He has the size to really blow people up when he tackles them, and appears to have the speed and quickness to make plays from sideline to sideline. If his instincts are anywhere near as good as his physical abilities, expect his production to go up dramatically. Markus Steele Many Cowboys’ fans—and perhaps people in the organization, as well—had high hopes for Steele after he was pressed into service as a rookie and did fairly well. But his production decreased in his sophomore season—primarily due to losing the starting spot to free agent acquisition Kevin Hardy—and then again last year, playing behind another veteran brought in through free agency (Singleton). In fact, he may have been out of a job altogether last season had he not gradually improved into a very solid special teams player. He’ll have to continue to produce on special teams, but I think Parcells wants to see him do more on defense this year. If his special teams play is as good or better than last year, he’ll make the roster. But Parcells—and everyone else, for that matter—would love to see him push Singleton. This is his season to show he has what it takes to return to the starting lineup. If he doesn’t, he’ll likely depart via free agency after the season. Jamal Brooks If there’s one LB that needs to really get his job done in training camp this year, it’s Brooks. After playing all 16 games as a rookie, and recording 24 tackles and a forced fumble, Brooks missed all of the 2002 season with an injury. He was re-signed for the final six games last season, primarily to serve as the back-up to Dat Nguyen at MLB. But Dat stayed healthy, and Jamal didn’t play in a single game. If there’s one thing that he offers, though, it’s versatility. Brooks is not only a solid alternative in the middle, but can play both of the other LB positions as well. But he’ll have to play special teams the way he did his first year in Dallas (20 special teams tackles) to make the squad. If not, Parcells will go with either Shanle or O’Neil. Keith O’Neil O’Neil was a relative unknown when the Cowboys signed him last year. But he played well on special teams, playing in 15 games and recording 14 tackles, and that’s what Parcells wanted. He has decent size, but hasn’t shown an overwhelming ability to play LB in the regular defense. If he does, he’ll only further solidify his position. If not, and Brooks can come on, he could be without a team. Scott Shanle Shanle was signed during the season last year, and played in 5 games. He only recorded 3 tackles, though, so he has his work cut out for him. With Brooks having the versatility and ability to play defense, and O’Neil being a solid special teams player, Shanle will be lucky to make the roster. He is still eligible for the practice squad, but the available slots there are going to be nearly as hard to come by as the regular roster this year. Kalen Thornton Thornton has a huge uphill battle ahead of him. He played DE at Texas, and has already had to drop 15 lbs. to play the LB position in Dallas. That may have been the easiest part of the transition, though, as the Cowboys are not going to be using a 3-4 defensive alignment as their primary formation. Why is that significant? Because the easiest transition for a DE moving to LB is at the pass-rushing OLB position in a 3-4 defense. Does that mean he can’t do it? Certainly not. This is a guy who had reconstructive surgery on his right knee during the spring of 2002 and still returned to play 10 games that fall. He stepped up last season and became a team leader, recording 51 tackles, 4 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 21 QB pressures, 6 passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. So he definitely has the ability. But his best shot is to do enough to convince Parcells to put him on the practice squad, giving him a year to learn the position. If he does, he could be a contender in camp next year. Closing Thoughts Really, I think this will come down to two battles. The first will be between Dexter Coakley and Bradie James. No matter who wins, both will be kept. The other battle will likely be for the 6th LB on the roster. With Singleton, Nguyen, Coakley, and James in the first four slots, and Steele likely in the 5th, the war between Jamal Brooks, Keith O’Neil, and Scott Shanle should be a good. I think it will come down to Brooks or O’Neil, and they may be dead even heading into camp. But I think it’s easier to pick up the special teams scheme than to learn any NFL defense, so if I had to handicap the competition I’d give a slight edge to Brooks. Shanle may push Thornton for a spot on the practice squad if he doesn’t make the regular roster, but I think Thornton would get the spot entering camp because he has more upside, IMHO. Wulfman Comments? Send a private message to Wulfman on this site.