In-House Battle Emerging at Strong Side Linebacker for Dallas Cowboys

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 11, 2013

Nov 22, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dan Connor (52) looks into the backfield during the game against the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving at Cowboys Stadium. The Redskins beat the Cowboys 38-31. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have found a way to get under the salary cap with just hours left on the clock. In order to do so, a cap-strapped team that was already immersed in a restructuring frenzy redid deals belonging to Orlando Scandrick, Jay Ratliff and Mackenzy Bernadeau, per Rainer Sabin of the Dallas Morning News.

We've already come to grips with the fact the Cowboys are risking long-term salary cap hell by tweaking contracts right now. But another move was made on Monday that could affect this team's short-term future. 

Dan Connor is gone. 

The veteran was the only experienced option the Cowboys had to start at the SAM linebacker position in their new 4-3 defense. Four-year backup Victor Butler is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, possibly leaving unproven youngsters like Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber to compete for a starting job alongside Sean Lee and Bruce Carter.

It's the second cap-related hit the Cowboys' talented defense has had to take this offseason. Now, they might be happy to know that Anthony Spencer is wrapped up to complement DeMarcus Ware up front, but there are major questions as to who will replace Connor in the linebacking corps and Gerald Sensabaugh in the secondary. 

I wouldn't rule out Dallas looking for another outside linebacker option in the draft, but I wouldn't expect Jerry Jones and Co. to chase anyone on the free-agent market. Connor wasn't a particular intriguing option in that spot anyway, but they won't find an upgrade on the open market for less than the $3 million they saved by parting ways with the five-year vet.

Albright made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and managed to start twice when injuries decimated the defense in 2012. He had one particularly strong performance against Pittsburgh in Week 15 but the sample size was still small overall. He's only been on the field for 230 snaps in two years. 

The 'Boys probably can't even afford to bring Butler back, which is unfortunate because he has shown glimpses and would be a very enticing option in that spot. That means Albright's top competition could wind up being Wilber, who took only 16 snaps as a rookie fourth-round pick but looked good during organized team activities.'s Calvin Watkins thinks he should be considered the favorite for the job.

At the very least, the Cowboys are losing depth. There was a belief that they were toying with the idea of moving Wilber to defensive end behind Ware and Spencer, but this means that isn't likely to happen. With Marcus Spears' future also cloudy and Kenyon Coleman likely gone, there won't be a lot of support for starters up front. 

I suppose Dallas had better hope that either Albright or Wilber (or both) can emerge, while also praying that this defensive unit is able to stay healthier than it was last year.