Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o
Monday's release of reserve linebacker Dan Connor was a smart move for the Dallas Cowboys. The franchise, trying frantically to get under the NFL's mandated salary cap of $123 million, saved an additional $3 million with the move.
Connor's release might have some re-examining mock drafts that mostly predict an interior offensive or defensive lineman going to Dallas next April. But don't expect the Cowboys to change their strategy too much because of this move.
To start with, Dallas still has young prospects in Kyle Wilber and Alex Albright on the roster, and it's a near certainty that these two players will have the chance to win the strong-side linebacker position during the summer.
If Wilber or Albright prove to be the starting answer along with incumbent starters Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, both of whom carried a first-round grade coming out of college, my money is Wilber.
Albright played mostly defensive end at Boston College and at 6'5'' and weighing 260 pounds, he has 3-4 outside linebacker written all over him. Dallas probably wants a quicker and more compact linebacker to man this position.
Wilber stands 6'4'' and weighs in at about 245 pounds. This is just a simple observation on my part, but it looks like Wilber might make the better option in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 alignment.
Let's say that neither Wilber or Albright earn that all-important third starting linebacker spot. Would you be disappointed with a linebacker chosen in the first or second round of the 2013 NFL draft?
Remember names like Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree of Georgia, Barkevious Mingo of LSU and Manti Te'o of Notre Dame. Each of these prospects were considered early first-round selections just over a month ago, but things have changed quite a bit, whether because of off-the-field drama or because of less-than expected performance at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
But these are all fine candidates to make a contribution at linebacker in the NFL. The question is which scheme each is best suited for.
Granted, Jones and Mingo will probably fly off the board due to their impressive college résumés or athletic prowess displayed at the combine.
But Te'o and Ogletree are pure linebackers, and both of these guys could fall out of the first round completely.
How should Dallas address strongside linebacker?
And these are just the top prospects acknowledged at this time. With free-agency officially beginning today, team needs and priorities are about to scramble everything up like eggs about to be poured into the frying pan.
The glory years of the 1990s saw all kinds of linebackers that were largely interchangeable in the 4-3 system brought to town from the University of Miami by former head coach Jimmy Johnson and staff. Names like Ken Norton Jr., Vinson Smith, Godfrey Miles, Randall Godfrey, Robert Jones, Darrin Smith and Dixon Edwards were all utilized from one year to the other.
The constant, back in those days, was the defensive linemen responsible for creating all of those 3rd-and-long situations that sometimes made even the best of opposing quarterbacks look like they had never played the position before.
Drafting a linebacker early in the draft is not a priority, unless of course there is someone really special there waiting within those first couple of selections, wherever they may be.
If not, good linebackers can be found in the middle rounds, and when you already have guys like Lee and Carter, you're already off to a fantastic start.
The ''X-factor'' in all of this is exactly where franchised linebacker Anthony Spencer plays should he remain with Dallas for the entire 2013 regular season. Don't take recent reports that he will not be traded as anything other than offseason chatter at this point. Spencer's best fit, with Dallas anyway, is absolutely linebacker, provided he sheds a few pounds.
So, look for the Cowboys to prioritize those trenches, both in free agency and in the upcoming draft.