Editor's Note: April is here, which means the first wave of free agency has passed and the NFL Draft is just around the corner. DallasCowboys.com's 11-part series analyzes every position on the Cowboys' roster at this point in the offseason: free-agent additions and subtractions, draft possibilities, returning players and question marks. The series continues with linebackers.)
Roster Holdovers: Sean Lee is coming off an All-Pro season and his second straight Pro Bowl selection. Staying healthy is obviously the key for him and it showed in a major way in 2016. Lee racked up 174 tackles, including a franchise-record 22 stops against the Giants. While the Cowboys are expecting big things from Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens and perhaps Mark Nzeocha, the main player on everyone's mind is Jaylon Smith. After sitting out last year with a knee injury, Smith continues to be optimistic in his rehab. While the Cowboys have not put a timetable on Smith's return, fingers remain crossed that he can not only get on the field soon, but develop into the player he was projected to be coming out of last year's draft. If Smith turns out to be a contributor, this linebacker position has a chance to flourish, especially if Lee remains healthy.
Free Agency Overview: The Cowboys lost a couple of players in free agency they chose not to re-sign in both Andrew Gachkar and Justin Durant. By drafting a linebacker in each of the last three years, the Cowboys have plenty of depth already on the roster, putting this position on the backburner in free agency.
Draft Outlook: The same reasons the Cowboys had little interest in a linebacker in free agency might be the case for the draft as well. But there is much more upside in acquiring linebackers through the draft. While it's unlikely they will add someone in the first round or second, after that is fair game at all positions. Linebackers are valuable because of their ability to play on special teams. Considering Gachkar is no longer on the roster, the Cowboys will probably add a linebacker in the middle rounds to add depth.
Time To Shine: While the obvious answer here is Smith, it's still unknown when he will be cleared to practice at full strength. Until then, let's focus on a guy such as Wilson, who is entering his third season and should compete for a starting job on the strong side. He'll likely be asked to handle more special teams duties with his running ability and athleticism. Last year, Wilson started to play more and more on the base packages and nickel. He can fly to the football and is gaining a better understanding of Rod Marinelli's scheme. This could be the year he shows the Cowboys the kind of player they were hoping for back in the 2015 draft.