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Even Move to 3-4 Won't Reduce LB Competition


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Again, just posting to keep you diehards updated on the ole' enemy.

Please, any comments, opinions and thoughts (good or bad) are welcomed. :)


Even Move To 3-4 Won't Reduce LB Competition

By Nick Eatman

DallasCowboys.com Staff Writer

July 11, 2005, 5:00 PM (CDT)

(Editor's Note: This is the second of a 10-part series, DallasCowboys.com analyzing the Cowboys position-by-position as they begin final preparations for the July 28 start to training camp. Today will feature the linebackers.)

IRVING, Texas - In a position that always has strong competition, all of the linebackers should be a little more excited about the expected move to the 3-4 defense.

If anything, that's one more spot up for grabs in a position that might one of the deepest heading into training camp.

And that being said, it's even more puzzling to think there wasn't a place for Dexter Coakley on this year's team. The eight-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowler was released in early March and quickly signed a five-year deal with the Rams, the Cowboys' opponent in the regular-season finale on Jan. 1.

Not having Coakley around will be rather strange for a Cowboys defense that has seen him start all but one game in the last seven seasons.

But that's life in today's NFL. Players come and go, and the Cowboys have already moved on. Now whether Coakley will be strongly missed remains to be seen, but for now, head coach Bill Parcells is only worried about finding his replacement.

And that could be quite a battle come training camp, with both Scott Shanle and Bradie James vying for one of the inside spots in the 3-4. Remember, it was James battling with Coakley in training camp last year, the Cowboys doing everything possible to give James a chance to win the job. But in the end, Coakley prevailed and started all 16 games, although neither player was rather impressive in 2004.

But James, entering his third season, needs to be ready to step up and challenge for a starting job once again. His main competition for an inside spot will be Shanle, who started the final three games at strong side linebacker last season in place of an injured Al Singleton. Shanle was more than solid, leading the team in tackles against Washington with a career-high 14 stops. He made 26 of his 29 tackles in those final three starts.

And don't forget about Keith O'Neil, one of the team's better special teams players. But O'Neil is heading into his third season and needs to contribute more on defense to stick around. He'll likely compete with Shanle and James for a spot.

One of those three will likely play alongside Dat Nguyen, who is expected to man the other inside position. Nguyen led the team in tackles (135) last year for the third time in the last four seasons. While Parcells has admitted his favoritism for bigger linebackers, it was clear the Cowboys had no interest in getting rid of Nguyen, whom the Saints asked for in a potential trade for defensive end Darren Howard. The Cowboys declined to part with Nguyen and after month-long discussions decided not to pursue Howard, especially after they selected two defensive ends in the first round on the NFL Draft.

Nguyen should be happy about the addition of nose tackle Jason Ferguson, one of the team's top free-agent acquisitions this off-season. If Ferguson can clog the middle as expected, it should free up Nguyen to chase down the ball as he did to perfection two years ago.

The outside linebacker positions are also up for grabs and it remains unclear where a few players will line up.

While rookie Demarcus Ware is listed as a defensive end, he lined up at outside linebacker during the last mini-camp. Clearly he will be in the game to rush the passer, but he's going to do more than that, including taking on blocks in the running game and covering backs and tight ends out of the backfield.

Last year rookie free agent Kalen Thornton, a defensive end in college, had to make the same adjustment, and Eric Ogbogu will likely have to do the same this season.

Singleton, a two-year starter on the strong side, will likely start training camp as a starting outside backer. Look for some strong competition from rookie Kevin Burnett, a second-round draft pick from Tennessee. Burnett underwent minor hip surgery in May and missed the final mini-camp, but he is expected to be at full strength by the first training camp practice on July 30.

By not having a third-round draft pick, many thought the Cowboys would trade out of the 42nd pick to accumulate more selections. Instead, the Cowboys went with Burnett, a rather unknown draft commodity. But Parcells saw a perfect fit in the 3-4 defense. A two-time captain at Tennessee, Burnett is a good tackler and should at least be ready to contribute on special teams, if not as a starting outside linebacker. Of course, Parcells would likely prefer he does both.

Thornton and Ogbogu will definitely compete and could give the Cowboys a rather deep and experienced rotation on the outside. Both players have experience as defensive ends and know how to rush the passer. But how they adapt to playing outside linebacker on a full-time basis will likely determine their fates.

After that, the Cowboys also have four inexperienced linebackers, including three rookie free agents who will fight an uphill battle to make the team.

But it is possible. They need to look no further than Ryan Fowler, O'Neil and Thornton, a trio of rookie free agents themselves, and Shanle, a seventh-round pick of the Rams who was later released, to know it can happen to them.


Dat Nguyen: After leading the team in tackles three of the last four years, Nguyen should have a strong hold of one inside position.

Al Singleton: Quiet veteran who will make plays, but not enough to avoid competition. The nine-year vet will have to battle the young pups again.

Bradie James: Being a solid special teams player has worked the last two years. But that's not good enough this year. He needs to win a starting job.

Scott Shanle: Could beat out James inside. In fact, he might lead the race heading into camp. Surefire tackler who has good instincts.

Keith O'Neil: Another third-year player who might have to do more than just special teams. But Parcells likes him, and that's always a plus.

Kalen Thornton: Not just the son of former Cowboys DL Bruce Thornton (1979-81). The younger Thornton is looking to start at OLB this year.

Kevin Burnett: Second-round pick from Tennessee should be ready to compete for starting job. Expected to be fully recovered from hip surgery in May.

Ryan Fowler: After spending most of last year on practice squad, the second-year pro is looking to stick around all year. Good athlete and better special teams player.

Reggie Love : Might have the best jumpshot on the team, but neither that, nor his NCAA basketball championship ring from Duke will help make the squad. Special teams will, though.

Jon Condo: Rookie free agent from Maryland will need to catch a few breaks in training camp or preseason to stick around.

Roger Cooper: In the same boat as Condo. Montana State rookie will have to shine on special teams.

Mike Goolsby: Won't be afraid of the big lights, having played at Notre Dame. But he'll need to make the same plays as he did for the Irish in order to have a spot.

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