And finally we arrive at the linebacker position in the lead into training camp. In some ways this looks like an excellent group but in other ways I see several unknown factors. Demarcus Ware is the best pass rusher in the league. Bradie James is a solid player, but Anthony Spencer and Keith Brooking have something to prove. And how can we forget the former first round draft pick, Bobby Carpenter, who is probably down to his last chance to prove he isn't a bust this season. My #1 concern is the depth at outside linebacker. Let's look at the linebackers one by one.
Demarcus Ware - No concerns here. He is quite simply the best player on the defense and possibly the best defensive player in the league. I just pray he stays healthy leading up to the regular season.
Anthony Spencer - His time has arrived. It is time to prove he was worth the first round pick the Cowboys used on him in 2007. He was starting to edge Greg Ellis off of the field on a regular basis last year, but this year he will need to show he can rush the passer to keep defenses from focusing on Demarcus Ware. He needs to prove that he can stay healthy after getting banged up a couple of times last year. I want to see him showing that he is a force to be reckoned with during training camp and preseason.
Bradie James - He is a very good middle linebacker. I don't think he will ever be great, but Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme really seems to suit James. I like the fact that he tries to step up as the vocal leader of the defense, but I think he should share the role with Demarcus Ware. I just want to see him continue the gradual improvement he has shown every year in the current defensive scheme.
Keith Brooking - He was a dominant player a few years ago and had his best seasons in Wade Phillips' defense in Atlanta. The talk is that he has lost his pass coverage ability. He'll have to prove he can still do it...at least on first and second down. I like the fire and tenacity he brings to the table and I hope his attitude is infectious. I want to see if he looks comfortable in the defense in training camp because the defense needs him to be ready immediately.
Bobby Carpenter - This is a hard one to evaluate for me. I know this guy can play because he was very good as a rookie against Atlanta (spying Michael Vick) and in the Seattle playoff loss. Ever since Wade Phillips came on board it seems like Bobby has been in the dog house. With Kevin Burnett now in San Diego this is Bobby's best and last shot to prove himself. He'll be the nickel linebacker unless he completely bombs during camp and the preseason. I want to see him succeed, but he is going to have to earn his time on the field.
Victor Butler - This is where things start to get a little dicey. Butler is a rookie out of Oregon State who is transitioning from defensive end to outside linebacker. With Ellis now gone Butler is one of the rookies who has to be ready to play by the time the regular season starts. He is going to have to get himself up to speed quickly with hard work and intense studying. The Cowboys need him for depth right now so he gets no grace period to get ready.
Stephen Hodge - He is one of the lucky rookies who won't be forced into action immediately on defense. He will be making the transition from safety to linebacker but he will be expected to make big contributions on special teams while he learns the ropes during his rookie year. I hope to see hustle and great tackling out of him during special teams play heading into the season.
Jason Williams - Jason is coming out of a gimmick defense in college to play in a conventional defense. He has to basically learn everything there is to know about playing middle linebacker. He is an athletic freak so he should be great on special teams. He also has great pass rushing ability so I would expect him to be on the field at some point during the season on passing downs. I hope he looks comfortable in camp but I expect to see him making a lot of mistakes as he learns the ropes. He could be a great player down the road if he is willing to work.
Brandon Williams - Here is another rookie who needs to be ready to provide depth at outside linebacker immediately. He is also transitioning from defensive end in college but, like Victor Butler, he has no time to waste. He needs to be ready to play in game 1 so I expect to see a focused, hard working player in camp.
There are a few other players at linebacker on the roster, but these are the players most likely to make the team and get on the field. I am very concerned about the depth at outside linebacker, but I think the starting set of linebackers looks good. The most important thing to me, as it is with the entire team, is that I see better tackling this preseason. I hope the coaches put an emphasis on wrapping up rather than trying to throw shoulder into someone or arm tackle.