IRVING, Texas – When the Cowboys report to training camp on July 22 in Oxnard, Calif., several questions will still need to be answered.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rowan Kavner, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – will attempt to answer these questions before the start of training camp. The questions will vary in importance, with the most pressing topics getting brought up in the days closest to camp.
Today, the staff predicts what the Cowboys will do at middle linebacker after the loss of Sean Lee for the season.
5) Who Fills In For Sean Lee At Middle Linebacker?
Rowan Kavner: I'll start out by saying I think Holloman should get a chance as a front-runner to start at one of the linebacker spots, but my answer for this is a guy we haven't seen in a Dallas uniform. The signing of Rolando McClain was as low-risk as it gets, and even if McClain plays 50 percent of the defensive snaps, the Cowboys are only surrendering a sixth-round pick for a seventh-rounder. One could guess with the way the contract was structured, the Cowboys believe he could end up playing significant snaps, and I'll say he winds up the starter at middle linebacker. McClain was a top-10 talent and may be the most physically gifted linebacker now on the Cowboys roster. His talent was never the issue. After last season, the Cowboys need good football players on defense, even if that means taking a chance on a guy others wouldn't. He should start toward the bottom of the depth chart as camp begins, but his reps could increase quickly if he comes to Oxnard more mentally strong and into the game and avoids the off-field distractions.
David Helman:I want to say McClain, because a guy with his talent could make a significant impression if he shows up ready to work and seizes the starting job. I need to see that to believe it, however, and McClain's litany of setbacks makes me wary. Instead, I'm going with the early favorite – the veteran, Justin Durant. He's better than he demonstrated during his 24-tackle 2013 season, and he's got six other years of experience to prove it – it was just two years ago that he posted a 103-tackle season in Detroit. He's also familiar with the system, having played something similar during his time with the Lions. More than anything else, I think injuries prevented him from making a bigger impact last year – he was playing a fantastic game against Green Bay last December when his second hamstring injury of the season sent him to the injured reserve. I don't think Durant is going to make anyone forget about Sean Lee, but I think he's capable of a much better effort than he put out last season. I like his odds to hold off the young guns during training camp and be the starting Mike linebacker, provided he can stay healthy.
Nick Eatman: What I think should happen doesn't appear to be what's going to happen. Since the injury to Sean Lee I've thought the Cowboys should hand it over to Holloman and let him ride with the position. To me, what he did last year in just two games, should give you enough hope that he can get better with an entire offseason of work. There's something about his instincts that are so intriguing. Last year in the preseason, Holloman was around the ball as much as some offensive players. And when he got the ball, he made plays with it. But as a middle linebacker, being around the ball and making tackles is a must. With Lee out this year, it was a great time to let him take over the job from Day 1. However, Durant and Hitchens will have a say in this, too. Unless he gets hurt, I see Justin Durant winning the job because of his experience and I understand that it's a "win-now" mentality for the coaches. They can't worry about the future right now. Still, if Holloman had received most of the summer reps, I think it would've been close enough to let the young guy take over. Who knows, maybe he wins it at training camp, but I still see Durant starting Week 1 against the 49ers. Personally, I would've liked to see Holloman in that role.
Bryan Broaddus:This is a question that most likely will not be answered until this squad takes on the Denver Broncos in that final preseason game. Before Rolando McClain was added to the roster last week, I would have thought that Holloman would have beat Justin Durant out for the spot, but now that has all changed. Holloman will stay on the outside which means that McClain, Durant and rookie Anthony Hitchens will all get a shot at the job. If I were a betting man, I would put my money down on McClain because he is the best fit for what the scheme requires. As the Mike linebacker, you have to play the run but also be able to handle coverage as well. As well as Durant can play the run, it's in the passing game where I believe that he gets exposed. In studying McClain while in Oakland awareness and execution in this area was his strength. Rolando McClain should be the replacement due to the fact that he is more of a complete player.