We're taking a look back at the 2012 season by analyzing the work done by all of the Cowboys position groups by themselves. The linebackers are up next.
The Players: When the season started, the Cowboys boasted DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter as their starting linebackers. Lee and Carter would both be lost to injuries, leaving the inside jobs to Ernie Sims, Orie Lemon and Dan Connor. Victor Butler, Alex Albright and Kyle Wilber backed up on the outside.
2012 Performance: If the Cowboys had stayed healthy, there's a good chance their linebacking corps would have been the best in football. As it was, they had a season where the total was less than the sum of the parts.
Spencer was outstanding in every phase, but Ware's second half was buried under arm injuries that sapped him of effectiveness. With the Cowboys moving to a 4-3 front next season, these guys aren't going to be linebackers anymore so let's turn to the interior crew.
Lee was on his way to what looked like a monster season before a toe injury ended things after just six games. His loss essentially gutted the defense because the loss of versatility left the Cowboys without innovative ways to attack the opposition.
Carter showed a lot of improvement this season, making it all the more painful to lose him after 11 games to an elbow injury. He and Lee were tackling machines in the middle of the defense who could also cover down the field, a mixture that was mostly absent with the game but somewhat overmatched replacements in the lineup.
Room for Improvement: The Cowboys are going to need to get more athletic at linebacker with the switch to Monte Kiffin's defensive scheme. Lee and Carter should be fine -- Lee looks like an especially good fit in the middle -- but there's no clear choice for the other outside linebacker spot. Some of the holdovers will be in the mix, but the Cowboys should be looking for something better.
Chances of Improvement: Connor is making too much money to return next year and Butler should also be gone given the change in schemes. That's at least two roster spots that will open up at the position and that offers a good chance at bringing in another starter at the position. Finding an All-Pro makes improvement guaranteed, but the Cowboys mostly need to be healthy so they can maintain their level. Carter may take a step backward as he adjusts to a new scheme, which would be the only reason to think there'd be any regression.
Long-Term Outlook: Pretty good, thanks to Lee and Carter. Keep them healthy and you should have a couple of years of above-average play guaranteed at two of the spots. Whether they use the draft to find a starter or not, the depth could be better as the Cowboys have several guys who no longer fit the scheme on the roster.
Conclusion: The move to the 4-3 never makes more sense than when you think about Lee and Carter. Letting them run around to make plays in a variety of ways is going to be fun to watch. Their ability to play all three downs and move around the lineup is something Kiffin will put to good use next season. As long as everyone stays healthy, it should work out well.