One of the better-kept secrets this offseason has been the medical status of the Dallas Cowboys' linebackers.
Two of the linebackers drafted last spring by the Cowboys are hoping to be back from injuries that cost them their rookie seasons in Dallas: Stephen Hodge (who underwent microfracture surgery) and Brandon Williams (who missed the season when he tore his ACL in training camp). And Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware had surgery Thursday to remove a bone spur in his foot.
There's no reason to believe the trio won't be back for next season, although microfracture surgery and ACL reconstruction often require a full year after the player returns to the field before his original speed and quickness are restored.
The Cowboys drafted four linebackers last year — Williams, Hodge, Victor Butler and Jason Williams — and signed free agent Keith Brooking, who stepped immediately into the starting lineup and became a key cog in the Dallas defense. But the Cowboys very well could pursue a veteran to fortify the linebacker ranks.
This year's class of free agents is full of big-name linebackers: Denver's Elvis Dumerville, Green Bay's Aaron Kampman, Houston's Demeco Ryans, Indianapolis' Gary Brackett, San Diego's Shawne Merriman, etc.
This is not the group of players whose names will appear on the Cowboys' wish list. Instead, if the Cowboys choose to add a veteran linebacker, they should be considering players who will fill backup roles behind the Dallas starters — Ware, Brooking, Bradie James and Anthony Spencer — and hopefully can contribute on special teams, and also will accept backup pay. Some names with considering:
• Jamar Williams (Chicago Bears): A backup with the Bears in each of his four NFL seasons, Williams is a solid and durable reserve (he has played in 16 games in each of the last three seasons) who thrives on special teams. He is coming off his best season, in which he had a career-high 43 tackles.
• D'Qwell Jackson (Cleveland Browns): Jackson is a player who can be viewed two ways. If he gets out on the market and some team sees him as the NFL's 2008 leader in tackles (with 154), he'll get priced out of what Dallas will want to spend on a backup … by a lot. But if the league views him as damaged goods — his 2009 season was cut short by an injury to his pectoral muscle that required season-ending surgery, then a team might be able to get him relatively cheaply. If that's the case, he could create a terrific three-man rotation with Brooking and James in the middle of the Dallas defense.
• Tully Banta-Cain (New England Patriots): Banta-Cain has been a fairly productive backup during his seven NFL seasons, but never a star. He spent four seasons in New England — the last of which was his best, when he recorded 43 tackles, at the time his single-season high — but the Patriots turned him loose. He then spent two seasons in San Francisco before returning this season to New England, where he burst out with career highs in tackles (55) and sacks (10). If the linebacker-thin Patriots look at his 2009 season, they'll offer him big bucks to stay. But if they assess his worth by viewing his entire career, they might offer a modest contract and choose not to match offers from other teams.
• Ahmad Brooks (San Francisco 49ers): Could be a perfect fit, in that he is a guy who still is trying to live up to the hype that surrounded him when he came out of college. At Virginia, he was a beast in the middle of the defense, but was kicked off the team because of off-field issues. He was drafted by Cincinnati in the 2006 Supplemental Draft, but never produced at the level expected of him. In his second season in San Francisco, however, he started to emerge, with 21 tackles and six sacks. If he thinks Niners head coach Mike Singletary really is the man who can pull a performance that matches his extraordinary physical gifts, then getting him out of San Francisco will be an expensive proposition. He has played mostly in a 4-3 defense, but if Dallas can get him to accept a minimal contract, the 6-3, 260-pound Brooks could be a powerful backup behind James and Brooking.
• Justin Rogers (Kansas City Chiefs): The former Cowboy was signed and later cut by Kansas City. Now past the knee issues that led to Dallas releasing him after reaching an injury settlement, Rogers knows the Dallas defense well, and is a personal favorite of both head coach Wade Phillips and owner Jerry Jones. Whether that's enough to get him another invitation to Dallas remains to be seen, but it sure doesn't hurt.
Free agent LBs offer plenty of options
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