I dont think this has been posted yet' Uncertainty At Linebacker May Require Early Pick -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Josh Ellis - Email DallasCowboys.com Staff Writer March 23, 2009 6:21 PM Change Font Size A A A A IRVING, Texas - The Cowboys' goal when free agency opened was to shore up a few positions of weakness: backup quarterback, defensive end, safety, linebacker. Jon Kitna will give the Cowboys more than Brad Johnson could, Igor Olshansky seems comparable to Chris Canty, and Gerald Sensabaugh should have a bigger impact in the secondary than the departed Roy Williams had in 2008. The most accomplished player the Cowboys signed, five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking, was at first viewed as a replacement for inside linebacker Zach Thomas, the regular starter opposite Bradie James last season. But since then, owner and general manager Jerry Jones has hinted Brooking could also be filling the nickel linebacker role vacated by Kevin Burnett, who signed with the Chargers on March 10. Whether Jones was being realistic is unclear, since the consensus opinion on Brooking is that at age 33, he's lost the coverage skills necessary to man up against tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield on third downs. Burnett excelled at those things, but coveted the chance to play every down, and apparently just wanted out of Dallas since he signed a relatively modest contract with San Diego. The Cowboys didn't see Burnett as a starter, as evidenced by their annual search for middle linebackers. First they signed Akin Ayodele in 2005, then drafted Bobby Carpenter in the first round in 2006. They signed Thomas and traded Ayodele last spring, the team's constant hunt for James' sidekick making it clear the former second-round pick Burnett wasn't ready, for whatever reason. By bringing in Brooking, who starred under Wade Phillips when the Cowboys coach was defensive coordinator in Atlanta, it became apparent Burnett wasn't going to be the starter in 2009, either. At 6-2, 241 pounds, Brooking seems like a better fit for the Cowboys' 3-4 defense than was the undersized Thomas. But in signing him, and thus denying the younger, more athletic Burnett the starting job, the Cowboys opened another hole for themselves at linebacker. As badly as the Cowboys required a starting caliber replacement for Thomas, the need for someone capable of doing Burnett's job may now be even greater - and harder to find. If Brooking really can't play on passing downs anymore, and his poor coverage at the end of Atlanta's playoff loss to Arizona suggests he can't, the Cowboys would likely turn to Carpenter first. With two consecutive years of playing almost exclusively on special teams, it could be Carpenter's first chance to earn regular defensive snaps since he filled in for an injured Greg Ellis in 2006. But now reports say the team was attempting to trade Carpenter before Burnett moved on. Such a move is less likely now since he's the primary backup to both James and Brooking, and could have an inside track on the nickel job. With minimal playing time during his career, Carpenter obviously hasn't elicited much confidence within the organization. If he's still with the team during summer workouts and training camp, it's likely he would have to earn his role on defense. As of right now, the team doesn't have a lot of other options for the nickel defense. Former Falcons and Browns linebacker Matt Stewart has signed with the team, but he hasn't played in the NFL since 2006. There's also Steve Octavien, who the Cowboys signed off Washington's practice squad in December, but the 24-year-old is more of a project. The Cowboys worked third-year outside linebacker Justin Rogers at an inside position some during last summer's training camp, but he's played only special teams since joining the club as a rookie. To Jones, the Cowboys have no glaring needs, including at receiver where Terrell Owens has been moved out. But with so much of their depth at linebacker unproven, the Cowboys may be forced to draft a player for their 3-4 defense with one of their early picks. "The good news with our team right now is we can go about any direction we want to in the draft and pick the best player," Jones told reporters in Arkansas on March 12, reiterating the point he had made to Dallas-area radio station 105.3 The Fan two days earlier. "We can do what last year gave us the best example ever of doing," Jones told the station. "And that is literally let it fall and let the best player there come give us a bargain and we'll get us a good football player." Though they're without a first-rounder this year the Cowboys do have nine picks - and a couple more compensatory choices could be added for unrestricted free agents who left last off-season. As Jones says, the Cowboys have put themselves in position to draft the best player available through their free agency efforts, coupled with the wealth of picks. By filling some spots in free agency, the Cowboys gave themselves flexibility - just not enough of it at linebacker. If James or Brooking are lost to injury, Carpenter likely becomes a starter and three-down player. His slow progress in three seasons necessitates picking a rookie capable of competing for the nickel job, or one who could be trusted to fill in if Carpenter or one of the presumed starters are hurt. Plus, Brooking's not getting any younger. He signed a three-year contract, but he'll be 36 when the deal expires. James will be pushing 30 by then. In a way Jones is right. The Cowboys don't have to have a receiver, or a safety or a nose tackle or an offensive lineman. They can get by without rookie help at all those spots. But not inside linebacker. So for their own sake, it would be awfully convenient if a linebacker just so happens to be the best player on the board when the Cowboys pick in round two or three. Brooking's age and the apparent dissatisfaction with Carpenter mean the Cowboys have to inject some new blood at the position.