ARLINGTON, Texas – A community event held during the second day of Organized Team Activities isn't the typical setting to address seismic changes in the Cowboys' upcoming season.
But there they were, roughly a dozen Cowboys veterans at Globe Life Park in Arlington for a charity home run derby, just hours after their first OTA practice since Sean Lee tore his ACL on Tuesday afternoon. Even for a team as familiar with injuries as the Cowboys, the news was a tough pill to swallow.
"I was right behind him when it happened. And that's one of my best friends on the team. Feels kind of awful," said Barry Church. "But we have his back no matter what. That's tough right there."
The recovery time for an ACL tear is somewhere in the range of eight to 12 months, leading to the widely-accepted speculation that Lee's season is done before it even started. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett declined to speak definitively on the subject, however, saying the team is still evaluating its top linebacker.
"Sean is still under evaluation today, and we'll continue that before we make any definitive conclusions on what his status is," Garrett said.
Regardless of that status, the NFL and OTAs roll on – "next man up," as has become a popular phrase around Valley Ranch. At Wednesday's practice, rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens stepped in for Lee as the first-team middle linebacker. Hitchens, a weak side linebacker in college, said Tuesday he wouldn't be ready for the role if the Cowboys played this weekend. One day later, he didn't back down from the responsibility of preparing.
"I've still got to get my alignments down and just play fast and just try to learn as quick as I can," Hitchens said. "They're not here to hold my hand and walk me through this stuff, so I've got to take a lot of time on my own to learn this playbook."
Of course, it might not all fall on the rookie considering the Cowboys' crowded depth chart at the position. Some have speculated about the possibility of addressing Lee's loss in free agency, which is something Garrett didn't rule out. He did add, though, that he likes the potential already on the roster – including young players and veterans.
"We always want to be able to look at the entire landscape of who's available to us," he said. "But we felt like we've added some resources to our team at that position – we want to give guys a chance and see what they can do."
Pressed for specifics aside from Hitchens,who was drafted as a potential backup for Lee, Garrett noted two of his backup middle linebackers from 2013 – both of whom were pressed into service by injuries to the squad.
"DeVonte Holloman played some Mike linebacker for us last year, so we would see him working in that spot. Justin Durant has played different spots for us and played different spots in his career," he said. "But again we want to evaluate what Sean's situation is first, then we'll give some other guys an opportunity to get in there and show us what they can do."
Bruce Carter, who played an inside position in the Cowboys' old 3-4 scheme, has been talked about as another possibility to play in the middle. The veteran, who is prepping for his fourth season and his second on the weak side, said he doesn't foresee himself shifting spots. "From what I see, I think they're going to keep me at my same position," he said. "I guess they're just going to try guys and work them in and out and just see who fits best."
[embedded_ad] Regardless of who it is, it's evident Lee will be a part of their preparation for the role from the get-go. Hours after hearing some depressing news, Church said Lee was in the linebackers' meeting room helping Hitchens and other youngsters get up to speed.
"It means a lot. He's bought into this program and he wants to win – if he's on the field or if he's not,"
Hitchens said. "It means a lot to me, being a younger guy, that he's helping me out already."
Having seen Lee fight through other injury issues in the past, Garrett said he wouldn't expect anything less.
"He's been hurt in the past during the season, when he's been on IR, and we have meetings that start at 7:30 in the morning and he's there," Garrett said. "He's there helping guys out when he's inactive and he can't play for the rest of the season. That's the approach he's always taken."