Cowboys Looking Back Inside

For most of the offseason, the talk surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' personnel needs has revolved around three key areas: offensive line depth, wide receiver and safety.

There's no question the team can use improved depth at other positions, but those three are widely perceived as the team's most pressing needs.

But there is talk around the halls at Valley Ranch that team officials have identified two other areas among those they might try to bolster in the draft, possibly even in the first round: inside linebacker and cornerback. RanchReport.com looks at potential inside linebacker candidates worth considering, and will target some cornerback candidates later this week. Some, like Alabama's Rolando McClain and Florida's Brandon Spikes, will be long gone by the time the Cowboys pick with the 27th choice in the first round, but that doesn't mean there aren't several worth considering.

• One of the most intriguing linebackers in the draft plays across town in Fort Worth: TCU's Daryl Washington. At the recent NFL Combine in Indianapolis, he measured 6-foot-2 and weighed 230 pounds, and ran a 4.66 in the 40-yard dash, which tied him with Oklahoma's Keenan Clayton for the sixth-fastest time among all linebackers at the Combine.

Some project him as an outside linebacker, but Washington is a good enough athlete to play either inside or outside, although if he plays inside, he surely will be asked to add some bulk on his frame. Playing in the middle for TCU, Washington often was overshadowed by All-America defensive end Jerry Hughes, but it was Washington who most will agree was the best player on the nation's top defense in 2009, collecting a team-high 109 tackles in his senior season.

Washington's athleticism goes beyond pure speed: he is a violent hitter who makes plays from one sideline to the other, and is better in coverage than many safeties. He had three interceptions as a senior, and blocked four punts as a junior.

With Keith Brooking turning 35 in October, Washington might be an ideal replacement; he could spend a year or two learning from Brooking and bulking up, and then add his speed and power to the middle of the Dallas defense. If the Cowboys decide they want him, however, they might have to spend their first-round pick on him, as many have him climbing through the third and maybe into the second round. By the time the draft rolls around, it wouldn't be surprising to see Washington projected at the end of the first round.

• One inside linebacker who would not have to bulk up is Kentucky's Micah Johnson (6-1, 258), who was one of the strongest linebackers at the Combine — his 31 reps on the NFL-standard 225-pound bench press were the third-highest total among players at his position.

Just as Washington has the strength and power to play inside, Johnson has the mobility to play outside, if needed, but he is a prototypical inside linebacker who is more effective, at least for now, stuffing the run than he is blitzing the quarterback or dropping into coverage. He takes good angles, sheds blockers well and punishes ball carriers (he had 198 tackles over his last two seasons, including 105 as a senior).

Johnson isn't blessed with blazing speed, but there are a lot of inside linebackers who can be very effective without running like a track star. What he lacks in pure top-end speed, however, he makes up for with a non-stop motor and an aggressive mean streak that should allow him to enjoy considerable success on first and second down (at least initially) and on special teams.

• Washington's Donald Butler (6-1, 245) is another in the Johnson mold — a big bruiser whose strongest asset is … his strength; Butler's 35 reps on the bench press led all linebackers at the Combine.

He started for two seasons at Washington, and was a bona fide star as a senior, collecting 94 of his 239 career tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss, two interceptions and four blocked punts.

Like Johnson, he doesn't have blinding speed, but he has an explosive burst that allows him to close quickly on ball carriers in the open field. He sometimes can get locked up with blockers, but he is fearless in heavy traffic and is adept at finding the ball carrier on plays up the middle.

For a player who lacks ideal size, Butler is pretty solid in coverage, and fluid enough to chase tight ends when needed, and should be an able contributor on special teams.

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