Identifying The "Moving Parts" Of The Cowboys' Linebacker Corps

INDIANAPOLIS – This is going to sound familiar, but the Cowboys find themselves in a fluid situation with their current crop of linebackers.

The same can be said for almost every position on this roster, but the upcoming month will be fascinating for this linebacker corps.

The Cowboys employ two starters they feel good about in Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, although injury concerns raise plenty of questions about depth. There's a quality, four-year starter in Anthony Hitchens – but he is bound for free agency in two weeks, where he could command an expensive market.

The depth was decent in 2017, but Damien Wilson is entering a contract year and Kyle Wilber is also headed for free agency. That all combines to create a lot of questions that this front office has to have answered in the near future.

"There's a lot of moving parts. Obviously, if you don't sign Hitch and you don't sign someone to replace him, then that becomes a need," said Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on Wednesday. "We've got four 'backers – Wilber and Hitch are up. So we know we've got to have at least two 'backers."

Dallas will have a variety of ways to find those two linebackers. They'll have options in free agency – whether that's Hitchens or an outside signing.

"If it's not Hitch, it's somebody," Jones said.

There's also this year's NFL draft prospects, who the Cowboys are evaluating at the NFL Combine. Last year's injury struggles have given rise to the thought that linebacker is a bigger draft need than most. Lee missed five games and part of a sixth with hamstring problems, while Smith was slowly but surely working himself back from his catastrophic injury in college.

Partially for that reason and partially for depth, it seems like a given that the Cowboys need to draft a linebacker. Whether that's a top-tier talent, like Georgia's Roquan Smith or Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds, or a later prospect remains to be seen.

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Anything is in place – particularly if Hitchens isn't back with this team in 2018.

"If it's not him, then it's somebody," Jones repeated. "It's either a draft pick, albeit a higher draft pick, or we're getting another player."

What exactly the personnel looks like will also determine how the Cowboys employ it. Smith made significant progress in his first pro season, but Cowboys coach Jason Garrett admitted he likely played too many snaps – particularly at points in the year when Lee and Hitchens were injured.

Garrett was asked Wednesday about Smith potentially playing more strong side linebacker in 2018, rather than his typical middle spot. He acknowledged that it was a possibility. But considering how much nickel and dime personnel NFL teams employ these days, he said Smith would likely need a larger role than that.

"He might be a SAM in base but you want to make sure he has a role when we're playing our two-linebacker defense, as well," Garrett said.

It all points toward a fun bit of shuffling. If Smith does in fact play some on the strong side, then who would take his middle linebacker role? And if the Cowboys acquire a linebacker talented enough to start in the middle, then what will their nickel personnel look like?

Those questions can't be answered until after free agency and the draft. But the Cowboys will have no shortage of options to figure it out.

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