The Cowboys made the switch to the base 4-3 defense after their 2012 campaign produced a mild 8-8 record. Since the change in 2013, the team has only carried 6-7 linebackers on their opening day roster. As it stands right now, the team has 11 linebackers on the roster. That number may vary slightly as we near training camp, but because our base defense requires three stand up linebackers, I can't imagine it to drop much before cuts to 75.
This presents a relatively interesting situation to our personnel department as they're going to have to figure out who makes the cut. It's always interesting to see where the team feels they should go heavier or lighter. For example, because of the injury history of our quarterback, we've felt it necessary to carry three signal-callers in recent years. Because of decisions like this, we've needed to go lighter in other areas.
This is where versatility comes in.
What can a guy do for me besides play linebacker? Can he rush the passer in a pinch? Can he play special teams? Hell, can he play fullback? All of these questions factor into which guys make the team or not. So, because of the large amount of guys we currently have listed on the roster, I thought it might be a good idea to project which guys make the team if cuts were today.
Injured Reserve/Physically Unable To Perform
Let's start with the injured reserve and physically unable to perform lists because they don't count towards the 53 man roster. I think we can all agree that this is likely the target for Jaylon Smith. Until the nerve in his knee starts firing again, he's not going to see the field. Having said that, his talent is too good to part with, and he's a second round pick. All of this makes him a lock to start the season on PUP.
Now for your quick, friendly reminder that Keith Smith, a pet cat of some fans for the last couple years, has made a positional switch to fullback in hopes to make the team in a different role. This change was a little bit of a head scratcher for me, but if he thinks this is his best chance to make the squad, and the coaches see enough versatility in him to play both sides of the ball, I say go for it.
The reason I bring this situation up, is because it may allow the team to go a little lighter on linebackers, maybe even as little as five guys (though I think they would probably go heavier than that).
Locks To Make The Squad
Let's talk about the locks to make this team. As far as I'm concerned, there is only one linebacker currently on the roster guaranteed to make the team: Sean Lee.
After finishing his first full season since 2011, Lee looks to extend upon his pro bowl play from 2015 and lead our defense this season.
All But Certain
With both McClain and Wilber coming into this season with new contracts, it's tough to see them get waived before seeing a snap in 2016. Having said that, both players signed low, team friendly deals and wouldn't cause a dramatic amount of dead money should the team want to go in different directions. Having said that, I just don't see that happening with the combination of talent and versatility that McClain and Wilber can bring to the table.
Both Hitchens and Wilson are fourth round picks and are still on their rookie contracts. Both of those facts make it difficult to think either won't make the team this season. Hitchens can also play SAM linebacker for you if necessary, giving him the versatility this coaching staff covets.
That gives us five guys (with Jaylon Smith on PUP as the sixth), with names like Andrew Gachkar and Mark Nzeocha still out there. IF Keith Smith makes the team, you could conceivably roll into week one without either of the aforementioned players on the team, especially since we tend to play a ton of Nickel defense which only requires two linebackers. Thus, you could go into the season with just Wilber as the SAM linebacker and flex Hitchens to that spot in a pinch.
I don't think that's the way it's going to go. Without forecasting the rest of the 53-man roster, I think we roll into the season with six pure linebackers and I'll tell you why.
I don't think this team is going to carry a fullback, which leaves Keith Smith without a job.
The addition of both Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris gives us two solid zone running backs for 11 and 12 personnel formations. I think those guys are going to run more comfortably with cleaner holes and one less body in the way. This takes carrying only five linebackers off the table.
And The Final Spot Goes To…
Okay Ian, then who is the sixth linebacker to make the team? I think this coaching staff is really excited with what they've got in Mark Nzeocha. This is a player that a lot of personnel aficionados had graded as a mid-round prospect coming out last season. He fell to us in the seventh round due to both injury and limited position flex. He's got an ideal build as an athletic SAM linebacker who some coaches think can push Wilber for starting time in base formations this season.
Now here's something interesting to think about that furthers Nzeocha's chances of making the squad. If we can get Jaylon Smith back at some point in the season, we would likely see one of these guys get knocked off the roster to make space, likely being Nzeocha. Having said that, because of his status on IR throughout last season, Nzeocha would be able to be put on the practice squad at any point in the season.
So that gives us Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha as our linebacking corps this season. I think this is a solid group with some serious versatility.