The first addition of the series that will investigate every position battle during the rest of training camp. I will mainly focus on those trying to fill the back of the 53 Regular Season roster, as opposed to the established starters. Following the recent look into how Rolando McClain affects the Linebacker position, I will start with focusing on the battle there.
With the loss of key contributors Justin Durant and Bruce Carter, many were left to believe that Linebacker depth may be an issue this season, especially when taking into consideration Sean Lee's injury history.
Fourth Round draft pick Damien Wilson has been a pleasant surprise on all accounts.
First-hand testimony from Coaches, Jerry Jones, and Cowboys Break co-host Bryan Broaddus have all been extremely positive about the rookie from Minnesota. Combined with the versatile Anthony Hitchens, who is entering his second year after a very productive rookie campaign, there is a lot of promise.
The key to the Linebacker core will be the health of Sean Lee. By all accounts, he is healthy and cannot wait to get back on the field. While he has been moved to Will Linebacker (Lining up to the weak side of the defense) in order to preserve his health, he will still have the opportunity to show his playmaking ability.
While Rolando McClain is suspended, his spot on the roster is secure going into the season. However, he will not count towards the official 53 going into Week 1. Those who I feel have already solidified their position for the 53 are:
- Sean Lee
- Anthony Hitchens
- Jasper Brinkley
- Kyle Wilber
- Damien Wilson
There may be some questions as to why I would already place Wilber and Wilson on the roster, allow me to explain beginning with Wilber.
There is still a possibility that Wilber may be the starting Sam Linebacker after finally settling down to one position with the improved Defensive Line depth. I expect to see him on several Special Teams units as well.
I am putting him on the roster now at this point due to how solid he is. While mostly lining up at Sam he has some flexibility to slide to the Mike (Middle Linebacker) in an emergency. Wilber is a very solid player that will keep himself positioned to make plays, and is not one to make the mental errors that plagued Bruce Carter's run in Dallas. However, he will not make very many impact plays which will cause him to have some detractors, but not everyone needs to be a superstar.
While I have Brinkley as a lock for the depth he provides at Mike, where he could also possibly start, Damien Wilson has impressed so much I do not believe he would make it to the Practice Squad if cut. Recently in camp he has shown the ability to play every Linebacker position. At times in practice, he has lined up at Will with Hitchens at Mike and Lee at Sam.
That lineup was probably to see how Wilson looks from the Will position, however there is a possibility he could start at Sam. Linebackers Coach Matt Eberflus and Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli will determine if that is the best three at Linebacker. His main competition for a starting position will come down to Jasper Brinkley at Mike and Kyle Wilber at Sam.
Personally, I believe the starting Linebacker group will be Sean Lee (Will), Anthony Hitchens (Mike), and Damien Wilson (Sam). That lineup is how Hitchens has the opportunity to play at his best position and would provide a lot of athleticism at Linebacker. If Wilson were to struggle, there is enough flexibility to adjust the lineup without much problem.
If the Cowboys are to keep six Linebackers (highly likely) that leaves a remaining spot which at this point should go to Gachkar. He will more than likely be on every Special Teams unit and by all accounts is an upgrade at Linebacker over Cam Lawrence. Anytime Lawrence had to play on defense there was a noticeable drop-off, Gachkar should provide a bit more stability.
At this point, I believe 7th Round draft pick Mark Nzeocha will find his way to IR (Injured Reserved) as he has missed all of Training Camp trying to show he has healed from an ACL injury. At this point, it is unreasonable to believe he could return to camp and make the team.
That leaves Donnie Baggs, Jonathan Brown, Ka'Lial Glaud, recently signed Dakorey Johnson, and Keith Smith to battle for one or two of the ten practice squad spots. Keith Smith stood out Sunday against the 49ers with some key tackles, but has done little of note in practices. From camp footage, the most impressive has been Glaud thus far, yet it will probably come down to the final two Preseason games to determine who will be kept around.