In the last article, we looked at the ILB position and possible players and strategies for the Cowboys. We looked at both free agents and draft prospects that could fill the Cowboys needs. Today I will look at the Outside Linebackers (OLB).
Before we get started, let’s look at the current state of the LB core.
The Cowboys will lose their starting strong LB (SAM LB), and their middle LB (MIKE LB), so they will need to replace two positions. The good news is that they have several returning players including Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, and Andrew Gachkar. Hitchens can fill the middle LB position, though it is preferred he provide depth rather than start. Currently there is no one slotted at the starting SAM. So the Cowboys will need at least one starting LB, if not two.
With that out of the way, let’s start with possible free agents. Typically the Cowboys prefer:
- No one older than 30 years
- Speed; they like fast LBs
- The SAM needs to have long arms and have the strength to play at the point of attack
- Coverage; they need to be able to carry the TE on the seam and back in the flat
Possible Free Agents:
- Bruce Irvin (Seattle) – Would be my dream get, but it will probably cost too much. Irvin, probably could be the starting MIKE or he could fill the starting SAM as well.
- Nigel Bradham (Bills) – A good fit, but it will likely cost 5 mil a year.
- Emmanuel Lamur (Bengals) – Coming off injury. His best position will be the SAM LB position; he will be affordable, but he may not have the talent level needed.
- Frank Zombo – would be added depth and a special teamer
- Tahir Whitehead – Could compete for starting SAM, but would likely be added depth
- Justin Durant – Been with the Cowboys before. Would not surprise me if he came back on a two year contract.
It is a pretty small group of free agents SAMs that fit the Cowboys scheme. It is likely the Cowboys will fill it in the draft. So who is available in the draft?
Before we review some possible draft prospects the Cowboys could look at to fill the SAM position, let’s look at attributes we evaluate in a LB.
These are 10 traits that I look at when evaluating LBs:
- Overall Quickness and Speed
- Instincts – Do they have awareness, can they quickly diagnose a play, and do they recognize patterns (routes, runs, formations)?
- Aggressiveness – Do they attack or sit back and wait?
- Tackling – Are they fundamentally sound tacklers and do they knock runners backwards?
- Pursuit – Can they get through traffic to make play? Do they over pursue?
- Power – Can they stop the pile, runner or blocker?
- Hand Skills – Do they use hands to control blocker, shed, and tackle?
- Are the disciplined?
- Are they a Playmaker – Do they create turnovers and can they blitz? Can they create negative yardage and big hits?
- Coverage – Can they cover TEs and RBs?
With that in mind, let’s look at the players in the draft that the Cowboys will evaluate.
- When he hits a linemen, then linemen goes backwards
- A great combination of athleticism and attitude
- A big hitter, you go down when he hits you
- Fast; can get sideline to sideline with ease
- Good motor; always making his way to ball
- Always going forward to attack runner
- Best coverage LB I have seen in a while. Almost played a type of slot corner in some situations
- Best when he is attacking the line and hitting gaps
- Has good instincts and awareness of what is going on and is decisive and aggressive
- Can read, diagnose and then attack
- Playmaker, he create mayhem
- Pop with his hands, can shock blockers
- Tries to hurt you when he hits you
- Good open field tackler
- A freak athlete
- He is not a good edge rusher
- Needs more techniques and feel when blitzing
- Can get dumb penalties because of passion
- My apologies to Broaddus. I did not think he was a middle backer and thought he was a finesse player, but he can play all three LB positions and he brings an attitude.
- He is my highest rated inside backer and next week he will be my highest rated outside backer.
- Great in coverage. Complete three down back.
- For the Cowboys he would be an immediate starter as middle LB. A playmaker that can give the defense attitude and turnovers.
- I would still drop down to gain picks, but not a bad option at 4.
- I would have him as a first round, impact player (top 10 player). I currently have him as the second highest rated defensive player.
- Fast sideline to sideline. Covers a lot of ground and can beat the runner to the edge.
- Can weave through traffic, stretch play out without over pursuing.
- He is fluid in coverage. Can carry seam or back in flat.
- Smart, knows what his responsibility is and is disciplined enough to carry it out.
- Can take on blockers, shed and tackle.
- Really good athlete
- Has some attitude
- Has good feel on blitz
- Will bring some pop when tackling
- Understands zone coverage concepts
- Good production, always near ball
- Will run down plays from behind. Doesn’t give up on play
- Would like to see him come forward more and not wait for runners to come to him
- Guesses at which hole the RB will take, and guessed wrong several times
- If middle LB will be his role, he will need to get stronger at point of attack
- I think his best position is Will, but can play MIKE or SAM.
- Will make a ton of tackles in the NFL. Could see him leading the league eventually
- Good in man and in zone coverages. Probably better in man though
- For Cowboys he would be an immediate starter and a good combo at MIKE with Lee.
- Is a playmaker that can get three to four picks a year.
- I may not recommend drafting him at 5, but dropping down later around 12-15 range and getting him would be a great move.
- I would have him as a mid -first rounder (top 10 player)
- A mixture of quickness and speed
- Maybe the best edge rusher in the draft
- Great bend when coming around the corner. Draws a lot of holding calls
- An explosive first step that allows him to be disruptive.
- Has the knack for making the big play. Creates turnovers
- Can get penetration in the middle or around the edge
- Good motor, always making his way to ball
- Pretty good awareness dropping in coverage
- He covered the slot receiver on a couple of occasions and did a pretty good job
- Tall enough to cover a Tight End down the middle
- Needs to add thickness and strength
- Lost awareness of where runner was on a couple of plays
- When playing inside, was more of a side to side player than a downhill thumper
- When playing inside, got caught up in the traffic too often
- Natural position is outside on the edge
- His best position will probably be a 34 outside backer
- He is neck and neck with Jaylon Smith as the second best linebacker. Personally I like him better in a 34 and Smith in a 43.
- If he can add weight, he could become a DE. He would be in the top 3 to 5 as a DE as well.
- A playmaker, he changes the game with his rush
- A big game player, he excels when challenged.
- Someone is going to get a player who could compete for rookie of the year. He is that talented. He has a high upside as well.
- For the Cowboys, he could play Will or SAM. Probably the starting SAM and then be a third down pass rush specialist.
- I do not think there is anyway the Cowboys could get him in the second, but if that happens they should run to the podium. He could be an option if they trade back to 15-20 to pick up an additional second and third rounder.
- I have him rated as a top 15 – 20 rated player.
- Strong, physical and tough
- Versatile – played inside, outside, DE and DT at Georgia.
- Can get to the QB from the outside or inside
- Can tackle, will drive runners backwards
- Can make offensive linemen look bad. Quick to the hole, can shift and dart through a gap
- Is aggressive, attacks at all times. Always moving forward.
- Will take on blockers. Multiple blockers most times.
- Looks to have a great size/speed ratio
- Plays big on the big stage
- Is a sure tackler
- As a linebacker will need to show he can drop in coverage. Georgia did not ask him to do that
- Not sure what his 40 will be. Needs to show speed not just bursts
- Can get caught with misdirection at times.
- When playing edge, teams let him get up field and run underneath him.
- Very versatile. He is the second or third best outside linebacker in a 34 or he could be one of the best middle linebackers in a 43. He probably would be a two down backer in a 43, but he could also become a rusher (inside or outside) in passing situations.
- He is someone that the combine could really help or hurt. His 40 should tell us if he has the speed to play linebacker. His shuttle times will show us if he can play middle, and his bench press will tell if he has the strength to play DE. He could gain size or slim down depending what he wants scouts to see. My guess is he will slim down and try to be a linebacker.
- He could be a high pick if his measurable are there, or he could be a mid-round pick if he does not have measurable that match a position (i.e. the 40 time of a linemen, but a bench press and weight of a linebacker). He needs measurables that match a position or he will be a tweener.
- He is my pet cat. I think he could wind up being an enforcer as a middle linebacker. Maybe not a cover LB but a run stopping enforcer. Even if he is not the best pure middle linebacker, he is definitely a SAM linebacker. I think SAM and middle will be his best positions in a 43. But he would excel in a 34.
- For the Cowboys, he would be starting SAM, backup MIKE, and situational edge rusher. He definitely has position flex.
- He may be there when the Cowboys pick in the third (I have him rated higher than most). If he is, they should draft him and then figure out where to play him.
Darron Lee (Ohio State)
- A good chance he will post the fastest 40 time for LBs at the combine.
- Can get to the ball quick. Will see, explode and attack
- Has a knack for finding the gap in the blitz from the inside or outside. Can find the hole to the QB and explode through for the sack.
- Not afraid of mixing it up, will take on a blocker and try to disengage.
- Has the speed to cover both in zone and man-to-man.
- Can weave in and out of traffic laterally to make the tackle.
- Played inside and outside. Has some versatility
- Seems to have knack for making a big play in pivotal moments
- Needs to add size and strength
- When playing middle can get moved back by blocks
- Would not call him an enforcer
- He wins with his athleticism, not always with awareness
- At times needs to take better angles
- Natural position is the weakside where he can us his speed to run down plays
- Will be a tackling machine in the right system because of his talent level
- Will be a great third down back because of his athleticism and cover skills
- For the Cowboys, he would play the will LB. I do not see the versatility to play SAM or Mike.
- He might be an option for the Cowboys with the second pick
- I have him rated as a top 35 – 40 player
- Physical linebacker with good size.
- Best trait is his ability to take on blockers and shed them to make tackle
- His hands are what makes him a top 50 player. Can use them to keep blockers at bay and then go get the runner.
- Played inside and outside. Has some versatility
- Good at timing blitzes from the inside
- When paying outside, is big enough to set edge
- Can weave in and out of traffic laterally to make the tackle
- Good against run. Strong and can get movement backwards to disrupt line
- Long strider which cause him to have good speed/size ratio
- Most times he has good recognition on screens and misdirection
- His long strides make him vulnerable in space. He can get himself off balance
- Short area quickness will be a problem
- He can miss tackles on the edge
- Good instincts, but at times that can get him in trouble as he loses awareness of ball
- Susceptible to cut blocks, although hands keep him out of trouble a lot
- I believe his natural position is the SAM, but may be better as a MIKE. In fact, he may wind up as a middle LB as his career progresses.
- His size is an asset against the run and he is athletic enough to drop in coverage if needed.
- Probably will not be a three down back. Will come off in third down packages to start his career. Although if he moves to the middle he does have the size and speed to carry a TE. I do not think he will ever be great in coverage.
- If available, I could see the Cowboys picking him up with their third. He could fill the SAM LB role and give them depth as a backup Middle.
- I have him rated as a top 65 player.
- Rushing the QB. He has the best hesitation and change of pace of any pass rusher I have seen in this draft. Uses hesitation well.
- Has well developed pass rushing moves. Can rush edge or inside.
- Knows how to set up blockers. May not have the quickest first step, but knows how to set up the blocker to get edge
- Great motor, always moving to ball. Will chase all the way across the field.
- Hard worker
- Good with hands, can keep blockers at bay.
- Can set edge.
- Good short area quickness
- Struggles in space
- Not the most athletic or fastest
- Will struggle in coverage
- Is hesitant when runner is coming directly at him. Can get flat footed
- Natural position will be in a 34 outside linebacker position.
- May not be starter early in his career but can contribute as a pass rusher now.
- Has more pass rush moves than other players in draft
- Uses change of pace very effectively and can set up blocker to get them off balance.
- For Cowboys, he would need to convert to a pass rushing DE. He would not fit them as a linebacker. Doubt he will fit the Cowboys scheme.
- I have him rated as a top 75 -80 player.
- Looks the part. Well put together with good combination of power and speed.
- Good natural athletic ability
- Downhill player, see it and attacks. No hesitation
- Shows up on tape. Makes big plays. Kind of player that can change the course of a game
- Good at the delayed blitz, sees hole and shoots
- Not great at man coverage, but can play zone and has good instincts. His instincts cover some technique deficiencies.
- Can run to the ball. Covers a lot of ground quickly.
- Is a hitter. The runner goes backwards when hit.
- His style of linebacking should translate well to the NFL. He is physical with receivers and runners alike.
- Has a good motor, will continue to pursue until the play is over
- Needs to play more. Not a lot of playing time. More play time will help him to develop his awareness and instincts.
- Needs better techniques in coverage. His abilities have covered for some technique issues.
- Can get stuck on blocks. Needs to learn to keep them off with his hands and then shed
- Natural position is the Will, but he can also play middle or MIKE. I think middle would be his best position as he plays like an inside backer. However, he is small and can get stuck on blocks. So to start he will play Will or Sam.
- Needs to add weight. He may be be moved to a MIKE role in his career, so he needs to add 15 pounds.
- He is an old school type of backer. Physical at point of attack, will stick his nose into the pile and hit someone, and he uses his hands on receivers and running backs.
- Better at delayed blitzes than coming off edge or shooting the gap.
- If available, I could see the Cowboys picking him up with their fourth if he is there (most likely not). Most likely they would need to get into the late third to get him. He would give the Cowboys depth and could start at the SAM if necessary.
- I have him rated as a top 80 – 85 player.
- Fast, quick edge rusher
- Athletic, use his speed and athleticism to make plays
- Disruptive, makes a lot of plays in backfield
- Will wrap up when making tackle
- Plays with a little violence in his game.
- Plays tough, takes on blockers, and has some pop to his game
- Has a really good motor, always chasing the play
- Aggressive player who wants to hit. He can set edge
- Doesn’t have a lot of moves, uses speed to make plays
- Needs to use hands better
- Raw, awareness needs to be better.
- Teams can use his aggressive nature to counter back inside
- Can over run plays, too aggressive
- Natural position will be in a 34 outside linebacker position.
- May not be starter early in his career but can contribute as a pass rusher now.
- His athleticism covers technical issues
- For Cowboys, he would probably play a SAM linebacker and situational pass rusher
- I have him rated as a top 90 player.
- Fast and quick
- Explosive around the edge. He is a highlight reel. Can really rush passer form edge.
- Disruptive, always making plays
- Is decent in man coverage. Can drop in zone.
- Can cover a lot of ground. Can beat runner to the edge
- Great on the blitz
- Athleticism is hard to handle
- Plays side to side too much against run. Doesn’t come downhill. Would like to see him attack run better
- Can be driven backwards but O-line. Can be wiped out.
- Can get caught up in traffic too much. Gives up ground too often
- Smaller player who can struggle to get off blocks
- Takes risks. Some work, some don’t
- Got to love the name and game. He is a striker.
- Natural position is the Will and does not have position flex
- Needs to add weight and strength and learn leverage to take on blockers.
- To start his career he will be a contributor and an edge pass rush specialist.
- He has exceptional speed on the blitz whether around the corner or delaying and hitting the gap. It is his best trait.
- If available, he could make sense for the Cowboys at the fourth. However, he is a Will and the boys have at least three Wills on the roster now.
- I have him rated as a top 100 player.
- Smart linebacker who is solid in all phases of the game
- Has a non-stop motor and will always be near the ball
- Assignment sound, understands his role
- Can rush the passer, mostly by just pure effort and quick shifty foot work
- Plays with awareness, sees the field well
- Good a diagnosing routes and lanes
- Good tackling technique. Could be inside backer
- Good in man coverage against backs
- Good in special teams coverage
- Can miss some tackles in open field
- Is not as athletic or quick as other LBs, but effort, technique and intelligence make up for it
- Takes on blockers, but can be pushed backed
- Just a solid all-around player. He is someone the Cowboys should keep their eye on. He would be a good get in the fourth round. Reminds me of Gachkar, but better in coverage and blitzing.
- Combine numbers will be important. He needs to put up a good 40 and shuttle. He has the instincts, he needs to show he also has the athleticism.
- Could step in and be a starting SAM. He might also be a good MIKE. He has the size.
- Not a lot of weaknesses, and plays assignment sound, but does not have the upside LBs. What you see is what you will get.
- For Cowboys he would fill the SAM position, provide depth at MIKE and be a special teams ace
- I can see the Cowboys getting him in the fourth
- I have him on the edge of the top 100.
Jatavis Brown (Brown)
- A hitter, will bring some pop
- Will work through traffic to get a hit on the runner
- Good timing when blitzing gaps
- Plays with attitude, he is an enforcer
- Will be a consistent 8-10 tackles a game
- Knows how to read running lanes and will meet the runner in the right gap
- Can shed blocks
- Plays with good leverage
- Need to see more in coverage. Was not asked to do much in college
- Is raw in some techniques
- Can overrun plays. Too aggressive at times
- Need to see combine numbers to confirm what I see in the tape.
- A good LB against the run.
- He brings some nastiness to his game
- He will need work, but could be a two down SAM now
- For Cowboys he would be a backup at the Will and SAM positions and be a special teams player
- He will be a late fourth round talent.
- If the Cowboys see him around in the fifth, then he is a value pick they could move up for
- He is a top 130 player.
Strategies The Cowboys Can Employ
As we mentioned in the last article, there are not a lot of mid to late round inside linebackers in the draft. But there are good outside linebackers. So I expect the Cowboys to address the MIKE position in free agency and the Sam LB in the draft.
If the Cowboys do not go for Jack or Smith in the first round, then they have some good options in round 2-4. Immediate starters that would fit their scheme include Perry, Lee and Jenkins. Mid round contributors to look for are Deion Jones and Joe Schobert (he is a good value pick). A later round guy to look out for is Brown’s LB Jatavis Brown.
If the Cowboys do look at free agency to solve their LB needs, the best option may be Bobby Wagner. He could play MIKE and/or SAM. Nigel Bradham is a lesser known name, but he would be a great option. Personally, I do not think the Cowboys will pay the money for Bradham, but they may be able to work a deal to bring back Justin Durant. Finally, if they just want to add depth at a cost effective price, Tahir Whitehead may be a good option.
The strategy I would employee is to look to trade down to say 15 and pick up a second and third (may have to switch 4ths) and look at options like Smith, Ragland, and come back later in the draft for depth with Schobert, Jones, or Brown. If they only get one linebacker, then they can come back and look at signing a free agent to fill any gaps.
Next week we will look at the defensive backs. Look for the strategies and players for corners and safeties.