Editor's Note: Since the start of free agency on March 10, the Cowboys have not only seen a few players walk out there, but have been active in trying to fill those voids, along with others. This week, DallasCowboys.com will take a closer look at the comings and goings for the Cowboys here in *free agency. Today, we will continue with the linebacker position.*
IRVING, Texas – Wednesday served as perfect proof that free agency lasts much longer than the first two weeks of March. The Cowboys lost two of their top three linebackers from 2014 in early March, when Justin Durant and Bruce Carter signed contracts elsewhere.
It took until April, but the Cowboys managed to retain their third key player Wednesday when they re-signed Rolando McClain to a one-year, $3 million contract.
Combine that move with several other free agency acquisitions at the position -- not to mention some injury updates -- and it's easily one of the most intriguing positions of the Cowboys' busy offseason.
What They've Done:
The decision to re-sign McClain was a big one – he was second on the team in tackles in 2014, and he was one of the emotional leaders of the entire defense. That's said, it's hard to ignore the loss of Carter and Durant. The duo have 112 combined career starts to their names – 44 with the Cowboys – and 427 combined career tackles. Carter's five interceptions last season led the team.
But it isn't just McClain who'll bolster the linebacker unit. Dallas added another middle linebacker in Jasper Brinkley, a six-year veteran with 33 career starts and 227 total tackles. They also signed Andrew Gachkar, who excelled at special teams and provided linebacker depth for San Diego.
It seems unfair, since he's a career-long Cowboy, but Sean Lee also factors into this list. Lee is a proven playmaker and team leader who missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL. He comes with huge injury concerns, as he has never played a full season, but the Cowboys are expecting a big rebound from him going forward.
Edge: McClain, Brinkley, Gachkar, Lee
What They're Worth:
Most of the Cowboys' decisions in the past month have centered around cap discipline, and that played out with their linebackers. Carter signed with Tampa Bay on a four-year, $17 million deal, while Durant signed in Atlanta for three years and $10.8 million. Carter's cap hit for 2015 is $4.2 million, while Durant will hit the Falcons for $2.2 million in year one.
Dallas tended to its new linebacker corps for roughly half the cost – and half the years. McClain signed Wednesday on a one-year, $3 million deal. Brinkley and Gachkar each signed a two-year deal, worth $6.5 million and $5.2 million, respectively. Both players count $1.6 million toward the salary cap in 2015.
Essentially, the Cowboys lost two starters to the open market, and they signed one starter and two role players for half the cost.
Edge: McClain, Brinkley, Gachkar
How They Fit:
It looked for a while like Brinkley would assume the starting middle linebacker position. With McClain rejoining the fold, though, he'd have to be considered the favorite to retain his job from 2014. Cowboys officials have stated on numerous occasions that they hope to shift Lee to the weak side linebacker position, and McClain's presence would only seem to solidify that hope.
McClain and Lee give the Cowboys a strong pair of starters at two of the positions, and it's anybody's guess who fills out the unit on the strong side. Anthony Hitchens, who excelled as a rookie at all three positions, should be in the mix. Other veterans like Dekoda Watson, Kyle Wilber and Gachkar should also have a say in the matter.
That's a pretty strong starting point, but it's hard not to think of the versatility and experience that Carter and Durant both brought to the table. It's unfortunate the Cowboys never had an opportunity where a foursome of Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant and Bruce Carter could have played together. Of course, if Lee had stayed healthy, McClain might never have found his way to Dallas.
For all the turmoil surrounding the Cowboys' linebacker the past few seasons, the club has done about as good a job replacing that production as you could expect.
It's always challenging to objectively assess personnel decisions after the fact. Bruce Carter and Justin Durant have proven themselves much more as NFL starters than any of the Cowboys' linebacker acquisitions. Carter led the team in interceptions last year, while Durant was on pace for 130 tackles when he tore his biceps. Having said that, Durant was unable to stay healthy in two seasons in Dallas, while Carter was inconsistent enough that he routinely changed positions and was occasionally benched.
The Cowboys know they re-signed a talented, but unpredictable player in McClain – and they did so without making any unnecessary commitments. They also added some valuable depth pieces to protect against injuries.
It remains to be seen how well this will all pan out, because the success of the linebacker corps depends on both McClain and Lee staying healthy for a full season. At this point, though, the Cowboys addressed the position without overspending, and that's commendable.