IRVING, Texas – One practice into Organized Team Activities, and the perceived weakness of the defense shifts entirely from one position group to another.
All the talk heading into the NFL Draft and the offseason centered on fixing an unproven, relatively unknown defensive line. That's still a major area of uncertainty, but it now takes a back seat to the linebacker corps.
And it's all a result of Sean Lee's knee injury.
With Lee on the field, a calmness exists in stark contrast to the intense vibe radiated by the linebacker. There's an essence and an air of confidence on every play, and there's a belief that greatness can occur at any moment. At the least, there's a sense of control. If things start breaking down, Lee's presence and ability to diagnose plays give the Cowboys an advantage.
Now, all of a sudden and out of nowhere – though not entirely puzzling given his track record of bizarre, unfortunate and freak injuries – Lee's gone once again.
The Cowboys' middle linebacker this season is now either a 2014 fourth-round pick, an outside linebacker or a player not currently on the team, acquired via free agency or a trade.
Outside linebackers Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman all had to bump inside at different points last year after Lee's injury, with varying success. But all three players were set to compete for outside linebacker spots this year, and neither the weak side nor the strong side starting spots are set in stone.
Now it's even more [embedded_ad] complicated.
The Lee injury puts every position out of whack. The Cowboys could be forced to use a player they wanted to start on the outside on the inside. The changes could be temporary if the Cowboys decide to bring in a player via free agency or a trade.
Inside linebackers Pat Angerer, Jonathan Vilma, Paris Lenon and Erin Henderson are all among the various options in free agency, if the Cowboys decide to go that route. They could also bring back former Cowboys like Ernie Sims or Dan Connor.
But none of them can make up for Lee, a player everyone at every position in the locker room looked up to. Replacing that combination of passion, preparation and skill would be nearly impossible for anyone.
The Cowboys have dealt with this before with Lee, but they're not used to losing him for a year before he's even played a game. His position was the only lock heading into the season at linebacker. Now every spot's up for grabs.
Carter's looking for a bounce back year and isn't guaranteed a starting spot on the weak side. Durant's dealt with a bunch of injuries. Wilber just moved back over from the defensive line, Holloman's only got a year of experience and Hitchens is entering his first season as a middle linebacker.
The fact that Lee will be coaching players up instead of roaming the field defensively means there's surprisingly now more question marks at the linebacker positions than on the defensive line, further digging a hole for a defense looking to crawl out of one after finishing last in the league statistically in 2013.