IRVING, Texas – The two promising athletes on the inside of the Cowboys' defense should be able to return from injury in time to participate in the offseason programs.
Of the various defensive losses this year, none surpassed those of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter in importance or significance.
Lee, who required season-ending toe surgery after starting only six games, and Carter, who dislocated his elbow in the first matchup against Washington on Thanksgiving Day, are both making progress in their recoveries and are on pace to return in the expected timeframe.
"I'll be able to participate in everything in the offseason program," Lee said. "I'll probably be ready to go earlier than when we start. February is when I'm looking to be pretty much 100 percent, around mid-February. It's going great. I was with the doctor (Monday), and the toe looks great."
Carter also said he should return before any offseason preparation begins. When Lee went down, Carter's responsibilities on defense skyrocketed. He became the linebacker communicating the defensive signals and held that duty until he got injured five weeks later after gathering nine combined tackles against the Redskins.
"My elbow's good," Carter said. "I actually start doing band work and work on strengthening it this week coming up, so I'm progressing pretty well."
The Cowboys used a medley of combinations with Carter and Lee no longer available. Ernie Sims, who came in halfway through the year as a free agent, began playing immediately in Week 8 and started a week later.
Brady Poppinga came off the street to join the Cowboys late in the year, suiting up for the first time in Week 14 following Carter's injury. Dan Connor became a weekly starter after competing with Carter in the preseason for the role at starting inside linebacker, but he fought through injuries as well. Alex Albright also altered between inside and outside linebacker, filling in wherever needed.
The Cowboys need to make a few decisions regarding which backups should stick around in 2013 after playing prominent roles when Lee and Carter went out.
"It's hard to build traction or continuity when you have guys continuously in and out," Lee said. "But I still feel like the year defensively could have been a lot tougher if you didn't have those guys come in, guys like Ernie Sims, a guy like Dan Connor, a guy like Alex Albright, some of the guys playing safety. If those guys didn't come in and play well, I don't think we would have even been in the position we were in (Sunday) to have a shot to play in the playoffs. At the same point, if you want to be a great defense, you've got to be out there together, you've got to be building together, you've got to be building off mistakes together."
Lee and Carter still finished the year as two of the top four leading tacklers, despite both of their seasons getting cut short. Lee's excited to see what the duo can accomplish at full strength if they can stay on the field for an entire year and build upon their successes from this season.
"We need to be great," Lee said. "Bruce and I have to find a way to continue to get better and make plays and be playmakers in the middle. I think we pride ourselves on being complete linebackers."
While Lee entered the year as a certain starter at linebacker, Carter earned that role with his play in the offseason and preseason. He'll enter the 2013 campaign with higher expectations after finishing second on the team with 70 combined tackles, and he looks forward to progressing alongside Lee.
Carter said he's got a lot of work to do in the offseason to prepare his body and build rapport and chemistry with the rest of the linebackers. His priority is getting healthy, and once the normal starters return, Carter has no doubt defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will know how to use them.
"A lot of guys on this team look up to him," Carter said. "Me specifically, I love Rob's character and the way he plays us on defense. I'm excited. I'm sure Sean's excited, too, just to get back out there and get to work."