Lee, Williams give Cowboys hope
Young inside linebackers show potential but still have plenty of things to learn
IRVING, Texas -- Linebackers coach Reggie Herring sprinted toward the middle of the field, shouting about a mistake made during team drills of Tuesday's workout at Valley Ranch.
A few snaps later, Herring was hollering again, only this time he was celebrating a perfectly executed play by gleefully ordering assistant linebackers coach Bobby King to give him a high-five.
Such is the roller coaster of working with a pair of young, talented inside linebackers learning on the job.
It's not far-fetched to envision Jason Williams and Sean Lee as a formidable starting tandem a few years down the road. It's Herring's job to oversee their development while preparing the recent draft picks to play significant roles for the Dallas Cowboys' defense this season.
"They have brilliant days. And they have some not-so-brilliant days," Herring said. "It's all a part of learning. That's why you never look down your nose at a veteran guy, but at some point in time, you have to let talent take over. Both those guys are very talented. You do see promise."
They're getting plenty of opportunities during organized team activities. Keith Brooking, the starter at the "Mo" linebacker spot, will miss all of OTAs while recovering from minor knee surgery. Bradie James, the starter at the "Mike" spot, was absent Tuesday due to a personal scheduling conflict.
For the most part, the Cowboys' coaches like what they've seen from 2009 third-round pick Williams and 2010 second-rounder Lee.
"I have high hopes that both of them are going to come in and help us some this year," said coach Wade Phillips, who is counting on at least one and perhaps both of the young inside linebackers to play in the Cowboys' nickel package.
Williams' progress was stunted last season by a high ankle sprain suffered during the preseason. But he admits that his head was spinning throughout training camp anyway. He's much more comfortable with Phillips' scheme now, confident enough to bark out calls and occasionally even orders to rookies.
"You learn by doing," said Williams, who was inactive for all but five games last season. "The more I'm out there, the more I learn I can play."
They have brilliant days. And they have some not-so-brilliant days. It's all a part of learning.” -- Cowboys linebackers coach Reggie Herring, on Sean Lee and Jason Williams
Lee, whose arrival at Valley Ranch made former first-round pick Bobby Carpenter expendable, quickly learned that every little mistake is magnified in the league.
"Even the linemen are great athletes," Lee said. "If you take one false step, he's got you. You've got to be perfect with your reads, and you've got to be perfect every play."
The Cowboys had Lee as the 14th player on their draft board, making him a heck of a bargain when they traded up to get him with the 55th overall pick. According to Herring, Lee has been exactly what the Cowboys expected: smart, tough, instinctive, strong, explosive and competitive. Veterans like tight end Jason Witten and Brooking -- who called the comparisons between Lee and himself accurate -- love Lee's old-school mentality.
Williams is one of the most athletic inside linebackers in the league, as evidenced by his pre-draft workout numbers (4.49 40, 39-inch vertical leap). But he had a huge jump from Western Illinois, where he dominated in a simplistic defensive scheme, to the NFL.
Witten said he used to be able to use Williams' speed against him, because the linebacker would overrun plays by so much. That's happening a lot less often these days, proof of the progress that Williams has made in one year as a pro.
"I see a big jump from last year to this year, just understanding the game and the way he covers tight ends," Witten said. "Obviously, he's a very athletic and talented guy. With little things like his body position, he's gotten so much better."
Witten, who certainly qualifies as a good judge of linebacker talent, said he's confident that Lee and Williams can contribute this season.
Herring's hope is that the young linebackers' mistakes will be at a minimum by the end of training camp. He considers it a good sign that Lee and Williams don't repeat their mistakes.
"It's a process that you have to go through," Herring said. "You can't hurry it, especially with young guys."
But the Cowboys are counting on these kids to contribute this season.
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter.