*With training camp right around the corner, DallasCowboys.com is taking a look at each position group in a 10-part series, continuing today with the linebackers. *
Top of the chart:
There's not much question that Lee is the best linebacker on this team. He has proven his knack for making plays, with 163 total tackles in just 21 career starts – an average of about eight per start. He's also trusted enough to be the defensive spearhead, as he called plays in both the old 3-4 defense and will continue to do so in the transition to 4-3. Lee is everything you'd ask for in a starting middle linebacker, except for that one glaring issue – his health. While his track record in games is impressive, Lee's 21 starts are out of a possible 32, which is not the best percentage. The four year veteran is approaching a contract year, though, so there's no better time for him to turn in a complete season and establish himself as one of the league's best linebackers.
Need to see more:
The North Carolina product has also proven his value on the field, but not quite often enough to this point. Carter performed admirably in his second season as a pro – his first season as a starter – in 2012. He managed 70 tackles alongside Lee in Rob Ryan's scheme. But just like his counterpart, Carter missed playing time when an elbow injury ended his season after 11 games. A healthy season would go a long way toward easing concerns about Carter's durability, but he also has more to prove than Lee as a playmaker. Fortunately, there might not be a player on the defense who will benefit from the switch to 4-3 more than Carter, as he excelled as an outside linebacker in the scheme for the Tar Heels.
Still need to see …
Which youngster steps up
The starting situation as linebacker looks pretty clear-cut for the Cowboys heading into camp, barring something unforeseen like an injury. But as the team prepares for training camp, the 90-man roster features 11 linebackers. And of those 11, six have two years or less of professional experience – five are rookies. So no matter how you slice it, some of the Cowboys' backup and special teams linebackers are going to be green. Whether it's a heralded draftee like DeVonte Holloman or an undrafted player like Brandon Magee, the Cowboys will need to be able to count on an unproven linebacker to contribute on both special teams, and even perhaps in the starting lineup on occasion. Alex Albright boasts the most experience of any of the younger players, and he should have a chance to fight for playing time in August.
Don't forget about …
Why does it feel like nobody in or around Dallas is talking about the offseason acquisition of a proven, six-year starter? Durant is a name that makes you think much more about the NBA than the NFL, but Justin Durant has started 75 games since he entered the league in 2007 – including 26 in his past two seasons in Detroit. He's accrued 435 career tackles in that span, with a career-high 103 of those coming in 2012. And it's also worth [embedded_ad]
noting the scheme he excelled in with the Lions last year is quite similar to the scheme the Cowboys will be using this fall. Durant seems to get forgotten about, but he has to be the favorite to secure the other outside linebacker spot, and history indicates he'll do well.