(Editor's Note: This is the third 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 2015 season. The series continues with the linebackers.)
Pressing Matters:It's anyone's guess what this unit is going to look like when the 2015 season eventually rolls around. Three of the four primary linebackers from last season – Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and Rolando McClain – are about to enter free agency. It'd be unwise to let all three walk away, leaving Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens without much in the way of help. At the same time, it's hard to predict how much each player is going to command on the open market. They all have their pros and cons. Carter might be the best athlete of the three, and he's still young – albeit inconsistent. McClain has rare size and physicality, even for an NFL linebacker, but his checkered past and his 2014 injury issues are sure to raise question marks. Durant has plenty of experience and has proven himself to be a productive player – with the all-too-familiar caveat that he can't stay healthy. The Cowboys have to weigh all these considerations – not to mention the offers all three are bound to receive from other teams -- and decide who stays and who goes.
2014 Evaluation:Considering everything that went wrong for the linebackers in 2014, their overall performance was pretty miraculous. The best of the bunch, Sean Lee, went down after one hour of preseason practice. When McClain was acquired in a trade, the expectations for him were absurdly low. The best bet was that a fourth-round rookie, Hitchens, would be partnered with two veterans who underperformed in 2013, Carter and Durant. That bleak outlook obviously never came to pass, as McClain was one of the highlights of the first half of the season. His physicality set the tone for the entire defense in the first six or seven weeks, and he and Durant turned into an outstanding pairing. Amazingly enough is that the unit once again bounced back when Durant tore his biceps in October. The Cowboys reorganized with Hitchens and Carter helping to replace Durant's production, while McClain continued to man the middle despite various injuries. This isn't to say the linebackers were All-Pro caliber. They struggled in coverage, particularly with tight ends, among other things. But considering the obstacles facing this unit from the get-go, all of the Cowboys' linebackers and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus deserve kudos for rising to the occasion.
Need More From: The Cowboys have played 82 games since they drafted Sean Lee in 2010, and he has played in just 46 of them. Since he signed his $42 million contract extension two summers ago, he's had an injury-marred 2013 campaign and he of course missed all of 2014 with a torn ACL. Lee has the talent to be one of the NFL's best linebackers, but he simply hasn't been able to stay healthy. With any luck, this latest surgery will help him put those problems in the past. If the Cowboys are going to continue their upward trajectory on defense, they'll need Lee to be healthy and productive. Regardless of whether he's playing in the middle or on the weak side – and regardless of who the Cowboys surround him with – the defense is better off with Lee on the field. On the business side of things, Lee costs far too much to spend another season on the sideline. If he can't become a reliable playmaker in 2015, they may have to entertain the thought of moving on without him.
Upgrades Needed:It's honestly a bit hard to say at this point. Everything is going to hinge on what the team decides to do with this trio of free agents. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has said Lee will be ready for the offseason program, so you can pencil him into a starting position. Who will be partnering with him is another matter. Perhaps the Cowboys could re-sign McClain to play middle linebacker and move Lee to the weak side. Or they could re-sign Durant to play weak side and leave Lee at his traditional middle linebacker role. Perhaps we could be looking at a trio of Hitchens, Lee and Durant to open the season. If they have bad luck re-signing their own, this all of a sudden becomes a position of immense need. It wouldn't be entirely surprising to see them once again turn to the draft for a young linebacker if free agency doesn't work out the way they want. For right now, Lee and Hitchens is a solid starting point and the ideal scenario would be for the Cowboys to sign two of their three free agents – or else look elsewhere. Dekoda Watson and Kyle Wilber should be able to provide depth, but it's unlikely the coaching staff wants them in starting roles for 2015.
By The Numbers:
- Carter led the defense in interceptions with five, placing him in a five-way tie for No. 3 in the league. He was the only linebacker in the top 30 among interception leaders.
- This actually the second-straight season a linebacker led the team in interceptions. Lee's four picks in 2013 led the team, as well.
- Durant piled up 49 tackles in six games, according to league stats – 59 tackles, according to Cowboys coaches' stats. That's an average of either 8.1 or 9.8 tackles per game, depending on who you're asking. That pace would have put him at more than 130 tackles over a 16-game season.
- Cowboys' coaches credited McClain with nine tackles for loss – best on the defense. No defensive lineman finished with more than four.
- As a fourth-round rookie, Hitchens participated in all 16 games, starting 11. He started one game at strong side, three games at middle linebacker and seven games on the weak side.
Position Series: Linebackers