Brains And Brawn

With the Friday start of the NFL lockout, clubs no longer can spend their time putting together proposals to sign free agents or orchestrate trades.

Until the dispute between the owners and players is resolved, the only roster changes will come in April, when the league holds its annual draft.

The Cowboys, like every other NFL team, have watched countless hours of tape, scrutinized players at the NFL Combine and various all-star games, and are making the rounds of various college pro days. Teams study players at all positions, but one area the Cowboys might address in this year's draft is inside linebacker. Bradie James is in his prime at 30 years old, but fellow starter Keith Brooking is 35. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has said Brooking remains in his plans for next season, and Brooking has said he would like to return, but he was pushed late in the season by improving rookie Sean Lee, and Dallas could add another young quality player inside. If so, has learned of five inside linebackers under consideration by the Cowboys, each of whom is noted as much for his football IQ as he is for his physical prowess.

LSU's Kelvin Sheppard is a sturdy interior defender who as much on his brain as he does on his brawn. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Sheppard is a smart player who excels at the one thing linebackers need to do above all else: tackling. He wraps up securely, and can deliver highlight-reel hits. Sheppard is athletic enough to play inside or outside, and has the proverbial non-stop motor that allows him to chase plays from sideline to sideline. Considered a strong team leader, he also showed the ability to play through injuries. A team captain, three-year starter and All-Southeastern Conference honoree, Sheppard frequently drew comparisons to James, who also played in Baton Rouge. In his career, Sheppard piled up 311 tackles, including more than 100 in each of his last two seasons (110 as a junior, 116 as a senior). Sheppard, who also had 19.5 tackles-for-loss and 5 sacks over his last two seasons, also is a willing contributor on special teams.

A member of the first family of linebackers, Oregon's Casey Matthews is known best for being the son of 18-year NFL veteran Clay Matthews and the younger brother of the "other" Clay Matthews — the star linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. But Casey is a productive player in his own right. At 6-2, 235, he has decent speed, and for a guy who lacks ideal top-end speed (4.8), Matthews is surprisingly quick and fluid, and accelerates quickly, which contributes to his powerful tackles. Like Sheppard, Matthews is a smart player who started for three season for the national runner-up Ducks, earning all-conference honors in each of the last two seasons. Matthews averaged 80 tackles over his last two seasons at Oregon, although his aggressiveness can cost him sometimes. He excels against the run, and despite not having the speed that has made his brother a star, is a capable defender in pass coverage and on special teams.

Chris White of Mississippi State stands 6-3, weighs 245 pounds and has been clocked at 4.7 in the 40-yard dash. The first-team All-SEC honoree and team captain looks like a prototype, and he his strength makes him a powerful tackler, but he is limited athletically and can struggle in pass coverage. After two years in junior college, he was productive in his two seasons at Mississippi State, collecting 185 tackles, 19.5 tackles-for-loss and 6.5 sacks in two years, including 110 stops, 15.5 tackles-for-loss and six sacks as a senior. White is somewhat limited athletically, and very well could contribute most on special teams at the professional level.

Cal's Mike Mohamed also fits the model of smart linebacker candidates for the Cowboys, having earned an $18,000 award from the National Football Federation to pursue a graduate degree. The 6-3, 240-pound Mohamed was a first-team All-Pac-10 honoree for three straight seasons and led his team with 95 tackles as a senior; his average of 8.6 tackles per game ranked second in the Pac-10. Mohamed is not considered an elite player in coverage, even though he did return his only interception as a senior 41 yards for a touchdown. A durable player who played in 50 of a possible 51 games, Mohamed graduates in fourth place on Cal's career tackles list with 340 stops in his career. Like the others on this list, Mohamed is a willing contributor on special teams.

As was mentioned in a previous article about players at lesser-known schools, the Cowboys have a serious interest in Central Florida's Bruce Miller, a standout defensive end for the Knights who projects as an inside linebacker in the NFL.

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