Much like the defensive line, this group of Cowboys linebackers had their share of medical issues that cost them playing time during the season. You have to give Matt Eberflus a great deal of credit for the way he was able to hold this group together.
Sean Lee struggled with a hamstring injury, then injured his neck in the Chicago game and missed the final three games of the year. Justin Durant ended his season up on the injured reserve list after also suffering a hamstring injury, while Ernie Sims missed games with a groin injury.
As the season wore on, it was never a group that appeared settled in their personnel with various players in and out of the lineup and young players having to fill in at spots that they had never played before. With all that being said, it was also a position that was wildly inconsistent in their play.
As good as Lee was at times, there were games where he was not at his best. In the second half of the game against the Chiefs, he was probably at his worst. Two weeks later against the Chargers was another game where he had his struggles. But then he returned to the Sean Lee that we all knew playing very well in a stretch against the Eagles, Lions and Vikings -- then the injuries hit.
If there was a mystery of the season at linebacker, it had to be the play of Bruce Carter. I have been wrong before about players and how successful they might be or struggle in a scheme, but I did not see what happened to Carter this season as a possibility. There was no doubt in my mind Carter was going to flourish in this 4-3 defense playing on the weak side.
Carter in two seasons showed a rare ability to chase the ball, then finish the play with power. Despite ending up with more than 100 tackles for the season, it just appeared that those plays were few and far between. No matter who you talked to in the front office, coaching staff or even his own teammates, there were plenty of dumbfounded looks when asked what happened to Carter during the season.
Some believed that learning the new scheme affected his ability to just go and make plays. There was too much thinking and it took away his ability to just go be a football player. Whatever the case might be, if this defense is going to be successful, there needs to be a solution on how to fix Bruce Carter -- he is just too talented a player to be this inconsistent.
With all the shuffling of the linebackers, two players stepped up their games to the point that it has to give the front office and coaching staff some hope going forward. DeVonte Holloman and Kyle Wilber were guys that this defense wasn't counting on to contribute the way they did and despite making some mistakes along the way, these two got better the more they played.
Wilber was really a man without a position when the scheme change went from a 3-4 to 4-3. Holloman played as a strong safety in college and was projected to play on the outside once he was drafted, but in camp, he did show some ability to play as the middle linebacker in the nickel.
What I expect will happen with Holloman and Wilber is that going into camp, they will battle for the starting spot at Sam linebacker, with Lee and Carter starting at the other two spots. We could also see Holloman stay at the Mike, with Wilber competing with Justin Durant, who I thought did a nice job in the opportunities that he had as a starter.
Of the linebackers that played special teams, Cameron Lawrence and Edgar Jones filled those roles, even though Jones missed eight games with a groin injury, he still was a very productive player. [embedded_ad]
Orie Lemon was signed off Arizona's practice squad to provide depth with the injury to Sean Lee and along with practice squad member Jonathan Stewart will get a chance to make this team as well. Where things could change for this group, is that I feel like that the front office will move on from Ernie Sims.
There are too many young players and with the potential of adding one or two more names from the draft or college free agency, there really isn't a spot for Sims, who did not play as well as he needed to take a roster spot away from someone else.
Going into the 2014 season, this staff needs to figure out who will be starting at Sam linebacker, and with good candidates there, it should be an interesting battle. The biggest question might be what will it take to get Bruce Carter back on track? We have seen him be a difference maker before and whatever he or this staff needs to do to get him once again playing at a high level, needs to be done now, rather than later.