(Editor's Note: This is the second of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2014 season. Today we examine the linebackers.)
>> View photos of the linebacker group from 2013
Pressing Matters:Sean Lee is a heck of a player to build a defense around – provided he can stay healthy. In his third year as a starter, Lee was being hailed as one of the sport's three or four best linebackers and one of the few bright spots on the Cowboys defense.
But Lee's inability to stay healthy will be the offseason storyline for a second straight year, after he missed the final three games of the season with a strained neck ligament. His timetable to return to full health is unknown, though it doesn't seem likely he'll miss the team's offseason program. The Cowboys' linebacker corps is shaky outside of Lee, so his prolonged health issues – 15 missed games in the past two seasons – are concerning to say the least.
2013 Evaluation: Lee's proficiency helped mask an inconsistent unit for a big stretch of the past season. In just 11 games, he notched 123 tackles – good enough for second on the team – and he led the team in interceptions with four.
The supporting cast of Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Ernie Sims was inconsistent and not altogether healthy – much like the rest of the defense. Carter finished third on the team in tackles, with 114, but he struggled in pass coverage – most notably against San Diego and New Orleans. Journeymen veterans Durant and Sims each started six games and were up-and-down with 30 and 47 tackles, respectively.
Of course, the Cowboys played the second half of the season with all four veterans injured at various points. In their place, youngsters Kyle Wilber and DeVonte Holloman got their first looks in the starting lineup. Wilber appeared to find a new position after initially trying to transition to 4-3 defensive end. He made 31 tackles at linebacker in six games from Nov. 24 until the end of the year.
Holloman returned from an injury of his own in time to play the final three games, where Lee's injuries forced him into the middle linebacker role. The rookie adapted well, as he led the Cowboys in tackles with 11 in the season-ending loss to Philadelphia.
Need More From … : It has to be Carter. When the season started, there was discussion about setting money aside to potentially sign Carter to a longterm deal, as 2014 will be the last season of his rookie contract. It feels harsh to criticize a guy who made 114 tackles, but Carter didn't seem to make the leap we were expecting to see from a third-year player. [embedded_ad]
In 2012, when Lee went down with his toe injury, Carter took control of the linebacker corps and excelled. It didn't seem to be the case in the new 4-3 defense, as the Cowboys gave up rushing totals of 149, 150, 100 and 137 in the final month of the season.
That's not to close the book on Carter. There's room for improvement all across a defense that finished last in the league in 2013. But his response to a down season will be something to watch going forward.
Upgrades Needed:The big question mark going forward is likely the strongside linebacker position. Durant started six games there, but his hamstring injury against the Saints gave way to Wilber. Both players are under contract, so it's likely you'll see a position battle – or the Cowboys could address the situation with a draft pick.
Despite his struggles, it seems likely that Carter is the starter on the weakside in 2014. Sims' contract is up, and it remains to be seen if the Cowboys keep him around. If he leaves, the Cowboys will need to address the depth issue either through the draft or free agency.
By The Numbers:
- At the halfway point of the season, Lee was tied for the league lead in both tackles and interceptions. His four picks ties his career high from 2011.
- Carter's 114 tackles in 15 appearances was a career high.
- Carter and Holloman were the only Dallas linebackers to post a sack this season, with two each. Wilber also notched two sacks in 2013, but they came from the defensive end position.
- Durant's 30 tackles is a career low since he entered the league in 2007, though his 10 appearances also ties a career low from his 2010 season in Jacksonville. He made 47 stops in 10 games that year.
Bryan Broaddus takes a look at the Cowboys' linebackers:
Much like the defensive line, this group of Cowboys linebackers had their share of medical issues that cost them playing time during the season. You have to give Matt Eberflus a great deal of credit for the way he was able to hold this group together. (Read more here)