IRVING, Texas – A year ago at this time, the Cowboys' linebacker corps seemed set in stone. With OTAs a week away and training camp on the horizon, that's anything but the case in 2014.
A plethora of injuries, not to mention some shaky performances, decimated the position last season. Injuries to Sean Lee, Justin Durant and Ernie Sims forced the Cowboys to use their fourth option, DeVonte Holloman, at middle linebacker by the end of 2013, while converted defensive end Kyle Wilber spent a good chunk of the year in the strong side spot.
The problem was enough to prompt the Cowboys to draft two linebackers, including fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens as a potential replacement for Lee, should the same circumstances befall them again.
"We lost our first one, second one, third one, had to play with our fourth one, which was Holloman, last year," said linebackers coach Matt Eberflus during the team's rookie minicamp. "So that was really the issue. Durant was always the backup, and Ernie after him and Holloman after him."
Even if all the Cowboys' linebackers can stay healthy, it's doubtful the pecking order will remain as clear-cut this season. Lee's neck injury in the second half of the season caused him to miss a large portion of the season for the second year in a row, while Bruce Carter failed to impress in what was expected to be a breakout year – a puzzling development.
It's something you'd have to ask Bruce, and I know he's working hard to put good days together and to build confidence and to build day-to-day and get better," Eberflus said. "I know he's grinding right now, and I know it's important to him. So we'll see if that translates to the games, but he's just going to keep working his butt off."
That leaves the Cowboys with about 10 players vying for playing time, and just one definitive starter in Lee – assuming he stays healthy. The rest is up for grabs. If the drafting of Hitchens and outside linebacker wasn't hint enough, there has been plenty of conversation about the starting capability of Holloman, and Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones has hinted at the possibility of trying Durant at the weak side, rather than strong.
"Those are internal matters – I'll let Mr. Jones answer that. Like I said, we're looking at the best three," Eberflus said. "So the best three – one is one, two is two, and those two guys play all the time and three plays the other spot."
Asked about the fact that a healthy Lee would undoubtedly be the top linebacker, Eberflus emphasized it for the other two spots: "So there's a major competition there."
That could mean anything, considering the availability of players at the position. Sims won't return, but the rest of the 2013 linebackers are in place, along with the new additions in Hitchens and Smith.
"There's a lot more pieces to be able to fit into the puzzle, there's certainly that. No question," Eberflus said.
Flexibility is bound to be a benefit in that situation, as well. The main talking point around Hitchens has been his ability to back up Lee, but he also played his entire Iowa career on the weak side. Eberflus added that Holloman has the ability to play all over the field.
"He's a guy that I knew could play multiple positions if we needed him to. He understands space because he was an outside nickel and he used to play safety, so he's good in that regard," he said. "He's got a lot of good things going for him, he's just got to keep working and improving his game. Hopefully he makes the biggest jump, like most rookies do, from the first to second year." [embedded_ad]
Regardless of whether it's a rookie or a veteran, there are question marks aplenty at the position. Even the lone constant, Lee, comes with questions about his durability. Ahead of training camp, that has to be concerning, but if there's a positive to be found, it's going to foster quite the competition.
"There is a standard we need to play with, and everybody needs to be held up to that standard, and it's our job as coaches to hold them to that standard," Eberflus said. "I'm talking about effort, hustle, I'm talking about the physicalness we play with – those are the standards we play with, and everybody has to come up to the standard of that. If you don't do that, then you won't play."