(Editor's Note: This is the ninth of an 11-part series examining and analyzing the main position groups for the Cowboys as they prepare for training camp. Today's piece focuses on the linebackers.)
What's the Deal?
While it's not anything new, but the Cowboys once again must figure out a way to play without Sean Lee in the middle. At least they know the deal going into the season now. After Lee suffered a torn ACL in the OTA practices, the Cowboys have toyed with different scenarios for the middle linebacker position. But the offseason ended with Justin Durant manning the middle, a spot he's played earlier in his career with the Jaguars. Durant might get some stiff competition from second-year pro DeVonte Holloman, who replaced Lee last season in the final two games. Also watch out for rookie Anthony Hitchens, a physical player who could be a force inside once he gets more comfortable with his surroundings.
Still Need to Find Out: [embedded_ad]
This section could be a book. The entire position has question marks and every player in the group having some sort of uncertainty surrounding him. Let's start atop the depth chart with a guy like Bruce Carter, who managed 122 tackles last season, but his 2013 campaign was still deemed a disappointment. He was replaced earlier in the season when he struggled in pass coverage against San Diego. That corner we all thought Carter would take as he entered his third season never materialized. With another year under his belt in this 4-3 scheme, Carter will be looked upon as an anchor of this defense. But as for players like Kyle Wilber, Holloman, Durant, Hitchens and everyone else down the line, questions regarding their ability need to be answered.
The linebackers combined for just four sacks last season – two from Carter and two from Holloman. Wilber had two as a defensive end before he converted to an outside linebacker later in the season. To be an attacking defense that Rod Marinelli wants, the linebackers are going to be blitzing quite often. But it's one thing to blitz and another to get home. That's been a problem of this defense for several years – having effective blitzes. Lee rushed the passer rather well, but his absence puts an even greater emphasis on this unit to fly around the ball and be disruptive, especially when they're attacking the quarterback.
Ready to Breakout?One guy flying under the radar at linebacker, as well as this entire draft class is seventh-rounder Will Smith out of Texas Tech. Making the team as a late-round pick will usually come down to special teams performance. At 6-2, 230, Smith has the body frame to be a good player on the coverage units. That could give him a huge boost to making the roster. But even at linebacker, he's got athletic ability that can make a difference on the nickel defense. Like all rookies, keeping his head from spinning enough to become a playmaker will be a big test.
Scout's Eye: Position Battles: Linebackers
There are a couple of different ways these defensive coaches can roll with these linebackers. My gut says that Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber are going to be the starters on the outside but where this is where it can get a little tricky. Justin Durant has been running with the first team and rookie Anthony Hitchens with the twos while DeVonte Holloman has been playing outside.
Last Time Out:
For a look back at how the linebackers on the roster performed last year, click here.