IRVING, Texas – Sean Lee changed all the focus on defense.
All eyes gazed on the completely redone defensive line entering the 2014 season, but Lee's injury turns every ounce of that attention onto a position group with no set spots.
Lee was the only player anyone could pencil in as a no-doubt starter at linebacker. It's likely Bruce Carter sticks as the starter at weak side linebacker, but it's certainly not a guarantee if he doesn't turn things around from last year in training camp.
Now with Lee's injury, no positions are cemented, and for that reason the linebackers have become the most significant unknown heading into the 2014 season – even more so than that defensive line which needed serious revamping this offseason and in the NFL Draft.
At least the line has a couple relative guarantees. As long as they can get and stay healthy, Henry Melton and George Selvie will be starters.
No such guarantees exist at linebacker, and given the issues the defense had – particularly in coverage and after Lee was lost for the season – that leaves most of the questions on the position group behind that criticized defensive line.
Even before the Lee injury, strong side linebacker was a toss-up between DeVonte Holloman and Kyle Wilber.
Now after the devastating Lee injury, Justin Durant's future position is in flux. The former strong side linebacker could compete on the weak side or at middle linebacker, as one of the most vital positions on defense will likely be filled by either an outside linebacker or a rookie in Anthony Hitchens.
It's possible the Cowboys bring in a player not currently on the team, either through free agency or via a trade, to fill in at middle linebacker. But if that position is filled in-house, that means a lot of mixing and matching and legitimate questions about how an outside linebacker can handle the inside. [embedded_ad]
Holloman played his best game of the season last year in Week 17 when filling in at middle linebacker, providing an encouraging sign for the future. But if he eventually bumps inside, that likely means the Cowboys have two starters at linebacker with a combined eight career starts in Holloman and Wilber. Oh, and two of those starts came on the defensive line for Wilber.
If it's Durant on the inside, there's no telling how he'll make the adjustment from the outside. In addition, neither Holloman nor Durant have demonstrated during their short tenures with the Cowboys that they can stay healthy for a full 16 games.
Meanwhile, the most tenured player at linebacker, Carter, is coming off a highly criticized 2013 season in which he failed to meet the expectations placed upon him from his previous breakout year.
It could end up working out if one of the current Cowboys can take a firm grasp of the middle linebacker spot in training camp, but there are absolutely no sure things at linebacker currently on the Cowboys after the Lee injury. As difficult as it is to anticipate how the defensive line's going to play, there's even more mystery at linebacker.
The position group which looked to be a blossoming breeding ground for young stars in the making in Lee and Carter has suddenly become the greatest unknown on a defense attempting to creep up the rankings from the bottom of the league.