The Cowboys did not add any new talent to the linebacker group for the 2016 season. Free agency came and went without any fresh faces being signed. Though they drafted Jaylon Smith in the second round he is not expected to play this year. To the surprise of some, Dallas will trust in last year's group to develop and improve.
All of those players but one were still under contract; Andrew Gachkar, Anthony Hitchens, Mark Nzeocha, and Damien Wilson. Rather than just allow those four to compete, Dallas still elected to re-sign Kyle Wilber to a two-year deal. That decision certainly puts a spotlight on Wilber right now among his peers.
Granted, there's another way to spin the re-signing. Dallas may have seen Wilber simply as a trusted reserve who also offers some pass-rushing skill, which they certainly need. His contract only totaled $3.25 for two seasons, which is backup money. He may not have a leg up on anyone for the third starting job, or even be in consideration for it.
That said, there are several reasons to believe that Dallas could be eyeing Wilber for the job. Consider the following:
1. They Re-Signed Him Before the Draft
Dallas did not wait until after seeing how the draft or free agency unfolded before deciding to keep Wilber. Free agency opened on March 9th and Wilber was signed on March 11th. Dallas didn't even make him wait on the market and try to drive his value down, as they've done with some other veterans in the past. That decisiveness speaks to a certain value they place on the fifth-year veteran.
2. Slower Development
Though he's never emerged as a star, Wilber has remained useful despite having to adjust to the 4-3 scheme after being originally drafted to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. He's had to learn how to play in coverage and the transition has likely slowed his development from what we tend to expect.
Dallas recognizes this and may feel that Wilber's best years are ahead. If he can build on the last four years and reach peak performance now, the Cowboys will be getting quality play at a major bargain.
3. Not a Full-Time Starter
Though it's a starting position in the “base defense,” the strongside linebacker gets limited snaps compared to middle and weakside guys. When the Cowboys move to their nickel, it's the strongside LB who leaves the field for that third cornerback to come on. Against passing teams, it's not uncommon for the nickel defense to be used more than the base scheme.
As the Cowboys look to manage their salary cap and keep their resources in the most important positions, perhaps a guy with Wilber's dependability is enough for them in that third LB role. He may not play more than 40% of the snaps in the season, so why not spend your draft picks and cap dollars elsewhere?
4. Pass Rushing Ability
With Orlando Scandrick returning and Byron Jones likely moving to safety, Dallas' confidence in their secondary will likely increase. This could allow for them to utilize more blitzing in the front seven which makes Wilber's strongest attribute even more valuable.
As was mentioned, Wilber started in the league as a 3-4 outside rusher. If the Cowboys don't ask their linebackers to drop back into coverage as much then Wilber could be used to attack the edges more than ever since moving to the 4-3. That versatility will only allow Rod Marinelli to be more creative.
5. The Prototype
If Marinelli sees his strongside linebackers according to the traditional 4-3 textbook, Wilber fits the mold better than the rest. Hitchens, Gachkar, and Wilson are all a little smaller and better suited for the middle and weakside roles. Nzeocha has size but is almost still a rookie after being injured most of last year.
Wilber is best suited to stand up against the run of any of the OLB candidates. He has also proven to have enough coverage skill to not be a major liability. While size isn't everything, it is a good tiebreaker when talent appears to be even.
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Right now, everything seems pretty even among Wilber and his fellow linebacker prospects. Sean Lee and Rolando McClain are the only guys with clear roles and starting jobs. We don't know how the Cowboys have these other players rated against each other and who they're favoring for certain roles at this point.
However, we do know that they thought enough of Wilber to re-sign him. We know that Wilber started as many games last year (nine) as any of the other candidates. Dallas may be most comfortable with Wilber based on his experience and production thus far.
For a position that isn't necessarily critical, just being comfortable is okay. You can live with that. Based on the new contract, Dallas seems okay living with Wilber for a couple more years.