(Editor's Note: This is the sixth 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 2016 season. Today we examine the linebackers.)
Pressing Matters:The big question mark at linebacker centers on the future of Rolando McClain, who is an unrestricted free agent for the second straight year. McClain just finished his second one-year contract, and like his first season with the team, it's not easy to gauge his performance. At times, he flashed the ability that made him a first-round pick of the Raiders back in 2010. Other times, he didn't make a big difference. After serving his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, McClain played in 11 of 12 games, finishing with 97 tackles (third on the defense) with two sacks. His interception return for a touchdown against the Dolphins was the Cowboys' only defensive touchdown of the season. The Cowboys might not take an aggressive approach in re-signing him, but will likely pay close attention when he tests the free-agent waters.
2015 Evaluation: While the expectations of Sean Lee and McClain together were supposed to produce better results, it was still a solid campaign for the linebacking unit. Lee became the first traditional linebacker (4-3 scheme) for the Cowboys to make the Pro Bowl since Dexter Coakley in 2003. He led the team with 156 tackles, while McClain (97) and Anthony Hitchens (85) ranked third and fourth, respectively. Lee's issues with injuries were somewhat improved, but he still played just 78 percent of the snaps, causing him to miss a $2 million bonus he would've collected had he played 80 percent of the defensive snaps.
Need More From … This was supposed to be a breakout season for Anthony Hitchens, who still finished fourth on the team in tackles, but the "wow" moments from him weren't there in 2015. Hitchens battled injuries throughout the year, causing him to miss some practice time. But overall, the Cowboys need Hitchens to step into a consistent role – part of that is giving him a consistent position. His versatility has been a bonus in his first two years, but like all young players, getting a solid position in place will help his development.
Upgrades Needed: Depending on what happens in free agency with unrestricted players such as McClain and Kyle Wilber, the Cowboys will probably need to add some depth. Then again, they've got youngsters – Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha – ready to develop. Andrew Gachkar also provided some special teams help and was a dependable backup at different spots. But don't be surprised if the Cowboys look for a major upgrade at this position – perhaps even using a high draft pick to get a playmaking linebacker.
By The Numbers:
- Lee's final tackle numbers were career highs in both total stops (156) and solo tackles (109). He also recorded the first 2.5 sacks of his career.
- McClain's interception against the Dolphins was the fourth of his career, but he scored his first career touchdown.
- Along with safety Jeff Heath, Kyle Wilber and Damien Wilson tied for the team lead in special teams tackles with nine. It marked the first time since 2006 (Ryan Fowler) that the Cowboys had a linebacker lead the special teams.