The competition many Cowboys observers are most looking forward to will be at inside linebacker, where Dan Connor and Bruce Carter will be vying for a starting spot next to Sean Lee, who has that job locked up.
Lee looks like a budding star; with six-time Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware and franchise OLB Anthony Spencer on the outside, linebacker could be a real strength for the Cowboys this season. But a lot also hinges on that unsettled ILB spot.
Connor is the more known quantity, having been an effective injury fill-in starter (19 starts, all the past two years) in four pro seasons in Carolina. It would be the safe choice, the thinking goes, if Carter is not ready.
But the Cowboys drafted Carter in Round Two last year because they believe he is an exceptional athlete who could be a game changer. His rookie season was almost a wash, but the hope is that a full offseason and an injury-free camp could be exactly what it takes to get him going.
Carter might endure some growing pains, but he can run very well and appears to have some power — likely more than Connor does. Although Carter has not shown the requisite instincts for the position yet (playing only in a few specialty packages late last season), he should have had enough time to absorb the defensive scheme to understand what to do better on the field.
The majority of Carter’s 10 games last season were spent on special teams, and he was not at full strength following ACL surgery on his left knee in December 2010. But now the team believes he’s ready to run and chase ballcarriers effectively. Having some speed at that position really could bolster a defense that was saddled with slower players in Bradie James and Keith Brooking last season.
The Cowboys might need to be patient with the 6-3, 233-pound Carter, as he’s still developing. But as a defense, they struggled to cover running backs and tight ends last season, even fullbacks in the flat, and Carter’s athletic ability and (the Cowboys hope) improved instincts and knowledge could give him the edge in winning a starting spot.