The Cowboys have completed their OTAs and minicamp practices. The offseason is history. Training camp in Oxnard is up next in late July.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – are attempting to answer 20 pressing questions as the team gets ready for camp and the 2016 season.
Today, our staff begins the series by discussing how the team should proceed at linebacker following Thursday's news that NFL has suspended Rolando McClain for the first 10 games of the regular season.
20) With Rolando McClain facing a 10-game suspension, how do the Cowboys adjust at linebacker?
Nick Eatman: The Cowboys can definitely call this a setback, but if they are surprised or better yet, not prepared for what happened to McClain, that's their own fault. In two years, he's shown them nothing that says you can fully count on him being ready to play. Personally, the adjustment I would make is to cut ties with him. Even though he wouldn't take up a roster spot, I think enough is enough and it's time to move on. As for the question, I think the Cowboys turn to Anthony Hitchens. I've always liked him in the middle. Anyone who can get 18 tackles in a game as a rookie seems to have something figured out. I think Mark Nzeocha will factor into the mix but I would go with Hitchens for now. Last year they cut Jasper Brinkley after camp. This year it could be the Cowboys in the market for that kind of established vet.
Bryan Broaddus:The one positive note about Rolando McClain skipping the OTAs was it gave the coaches the opportunity to use some different combinations at his spot. Andrew Gachkar took the majority of the snaps with the first defense and the nickel but I see him more in that core special teamer role and not as a starter. Anthony Hitchens was used in the rotation. Hitchens was the starter for the first four games last season while McClain was on suspension and did not play poorly. Hitchens averaging a little more than seven tackles per game as the starter. The coaches ideally would like to play him at WILL behind Sean Lee and continue his role on special teams. The wild card here in my opinion is Mark Nzeocha. I like his physical makeup to handle the position but there is a learning curve. I have no problem giving him as many snaps as possible to see if he can do the job going forward.
David Helman: Next man up, as the saying goes. It's obviously disappointing to see one of the more talented players on the defense throw away 60 percent of his season, but you can hardly call it surprising in the case of Rolando McClain. I doubt the Cowboys will look outside the current roster to find his replacement, and I doubt they'll move Sean Lee away from the weak side. The two guys who manned the position while McClain was absent this spring were Andrew Gachkar and Anthony Hitchens, and I assume they'll get the first crack in training camp. Mark Nzeocha is a name that will probably get thrown around in the next month, but I'm going to lean toward experience. I think Hitchens and Lee will be your primary two linebackers when the Cowboys line up against New York in Week 1.[embeddedad0]
Rob Phillips: McClain's suspension is a setback for the defense, no question about it, because of the way he can impact a game. But the team has been through this before, haven't they? Anthony Hitchens is a guy the Cowboys have been able to depend on at all three linebacker spots for the last two years. In 2015 he started the first four games at middle linebacker during McClain's previous suspension, and while he's a bit undersized at 235 pounds, adding Cedric Thornton to the defensive line should help protect him up front. Hitchens could be the first option to start in McClain's place, though Mark Nzeocha is a good athlete with a bigger frame. Regardless, I don't think you move Sean Lee from the weak-side spot. He was too productive there last year. It's the best place in Rod Marinelli's defense for him to roam and make plays.