(Editor's Note: With NFL free agency in its second month and the draft a week away, the staff members of DallasCowboys.com are analyzing each position on the Cowboys' roster: what we know and what still needs to be determined. Today, we continue the 11-part series with linebacker.)
IRVING, Texas – After a disappointing 4-12 season in 2015, at least the Cowboys entered 2016 on a bit of a positive note back in January when Sean Lee enjoyed his first career Pro Bowl appearance – a reward he earned in returning healthy from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2014 season.
Overall, 2015 was a healthier season for Lee and the entire linebacker group. Last year's core returns for 2016, though the Cowboys could add to the depth chart in next week's NFL Draft.
Here's where the linebacker position stands for the team here in late April:
What We Know: Lee vowed to return healthy and productive following his 2014 ACL injury, and he indeed delivered a career season. He started 14 games, the second most of his career, and posted 156 team-credited tackles, 2.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss – all personal bests. By comparison, safety Barry Church led the defense with 110 tackles in 2014. Lee did seem to benefit from his move to weak-side linebacker, a high-production position in Rod Marinelli's defense, because he had more space to flow to the ball without having to shed as many blockers.
Still Need To Know: Having dealt with injuries off and on during his career, Lee said repeatedly last year that he must stay healthy and help lead this defense. When he's on the field, he's a difference maker sideline to sideline. The 2015 season was a positive step despite missing two games – one with a concussion and one with a hamstring injury.
What We Know: The Cowboys clearly had no interest in letting McClain test the open market and made sure they re-signed him to a new one-year contract just before the start of the New League Year in March. After missing the first four games due to NFL suspension, McClain started 11 of the final 12 and finished third on defense with 97 team-credited tackles, two sacks, one interception and 10 quarterback pressures.
Still Need To Know: Will a full offseason help him get off to a fast start? McClain spent most of last year's offseason recovering from knee surgery. Then he served his four-game suspension and needed a little time to get into a rhythm when he returned to the lineup in October. The Cowboys value his versatility to play the run and cover from the middle linebacker spot, and they're a better defense when he's at his best.
What We Know: Hitchens is a tough, dependable player who can step in at any linebacker position. He filled in admirably as a rookie in 2014, starting 11 games due to injuries to Lee and McClain. In 2015, Hitchens started at middle linebacker during McClain's suspension and finished the season fourth on defense with 85 team-credited tackles, two sacks and eight quarterback pressures.
Still Need To Know: When McClain and Lee are on the field, what is Hitchens' best role? Once McClain returned from suspension last October, Hitchens had eight games of fewer than 20 snaps in part because Lee and McClain were the two linebackers who stayed on the field in subpackages. The Cowboys know he can help at both their linebackers and play the strong side if needed, though. He started at all three spots in each of the team's final three games.
What We Know: Re-signing Wilber was also a priority for the Cowboys, and he's back on a new two-year deal. The four-year veteran started six games at strong-side linebacker in 2015 and finished with 27 team-credited tackles and four quarterback pressures. He also tied Jeff Heath and Damien Wilson with a team-best nine special teams tackles.
Still Need To Know: Like Hitchens, Wilber is a consummate role player who can help in a lot of areas. Both players can start at the strong-side spot alongside Lee and McClain, though that spot doesn't get as many snaps because the Cowboys play so much nickel. Wilber played 21 percent of the defensive snaps last year – will that number stay about the same? He also can help as a nickel rusher if needed.
Others to Watch
Andrew Gachkar: He provided depth at linebacker in his first season in Dallas, appearing all 16 games and starting one. Playing 11 percent of the defensive snaps, he had 13 tackles and also added eight stops on special teams.
Damien Wilson: Last year's fourth-round pick was primarily a core special teams contributor with a team-best tying nine tackles. He played only 32 defensive snaps as a rookie – could that number rise in 2016? Has versatility to play multiple spots.[embeddedad0]
Mark Nzeocha: Drafted in the seventh round last year, Nzeocha made his NFL debut in Week 15 against the Jets and played on special teams in two of the final three games. Like Wilson, he'll look to crack the linebacker rotation in his second season.
Keith Smith: Smith went to training camp with the Cowboys and alternated between the practice squad and the active roster in 2015. He's a strong special teams player, which could help him make a case for a roster spot this summer.
Derek Akunne: Like Smith, Akunne ended the season on the Cowboys' practice squad and was signed to their Reserve/Future list. He previously spent time on the Falcons' squad as an undrafted rookie.
Jerrell Harris: The Cowboys also signed Harris to their Reserve/Future list after the season. The former Alabama linebacker has spent time on a few other practice squads since entering the league in 2012.