IRVING, Texas – Losing one linebacker for the season was a tough blow for the Cowboys, but losing another forever is another matter entirely.
The Cowboys' linebacker corps, already in disarray after losing Sean Lee to a torn ACL, took another blow Thursday with the revelation that DeVonte Holloman's neck injury is likely career-ending.
"DeVonte got information back from the doctors in San Antonio and some other doctors he visited with regarding his neck, and it doesn't look like he's going to be able to play football anymore," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.
Holloman left Saturday's loss to Baltimore with a related injury to the one that forced him out of the lineup for seven games last season. He returned for the final three weeks of his rookie season, and he showed enough flash to make him an offseason contender for a starting role in 2014.
"He was such a good role player for us last year," Garrett said. "If you think about his progression from college, he played kind of a strong safety position and then he came in here last year and really took it by storm right from the outset."
The scrutiny on the Cowboys' linebackers was already substantial – not just because of Lee's absence, but the arrival of a top-10 draft pick to offset that loss. Rolando McClain has undoubtedly been one of the key figures of this training camp, with attention focused on his legal issues back in Alabama, his multiple retirements and his capability of assuming a starting role.
McClain's progress has been such a major storyline in training camp, it's easy to forget the Cowboys' narrative from the team's Organized Team Activities. In the immediate wake of Lee's injury, it was rookie Anthony Hitchens, a weak side linebacker from Iowa, who was tabbed to man the middle while Justin Durant recovered from injury.
"We felt like, given our team on draft day, he has a chance to be a Mike linebacker because of his physical traits," Garrett said. "We did that and he did that a lot through the spring, and I think he played some Will in the spring and mostly Mike."
Hitchens had been a Will throughout training camp as Durant and McClain split reps, but he re-joined the conversation at Mike on Thursday when he took first-team snaps. It was his first time running with the [embedded_ad]
first-team since before training camp.
"It's a big opportunity, mentally and physically, to see where I stand," he said. "It's a lot different pace from the ones to the twos in practice. It's a big opportunity for me, I'm just trying to make the most of it."
The shuffling comes as the Cowboys continue to search for their best combination of linebackers.
"Some other guys are more capable of playing Will, some other guys are more capable of playing Sam -- he's suited to play Mike," Garrett said. "Thats where we had him and let's put him back there."
The Cowboys haven't been afraid to try anything to this point. The concept of cross-training at multiple positions applies to everyone, as linebackers coach Matt Eberflus has described. Durant has spent time at both the strong side and weak side this week, in addition to his usual duties in the middle. Before his injury, Holloman played on the outside and was a backup in the middle.
That loss reduced the linebackers even more, and it compounds the question of who will play ever so slightly. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Cowboys sign a new linebacker – they worked out former Eagle Jason Phillips earlier Thursday afternoon.
For now, the shuffling looks likely to continue as the Cowboys try to solve the issue.
"Each of those linebacker spots we have kind of moved guys around, playing different combinations both with the ones and twos," Garrett said.