IRVING, Texas – One practice into Organized Team Activities (OTAs), and the perceived weakness of the defense shifts entirely from one position group to another.
All the talk heading into the 2014 NFL Draft and the offseason centered on fixing an unproven, relatively unknown defensive line. That’s still an area of uncertainty, but it now takes a back seat to the linebacker corps.
And it’s all a result of Sean Lee’s season-ending knee injury.
With Lee on the field, a calmness exists in stark contrast to the intense vibe radiated by the linebacker. There’s an essence and an air of confidence on every play, and there’s a belief that greatness can occur at any moment. At the least, there’s a sense of control. If things start breaking down, Lee’s presence and ability to diagnose plays give the Dallas Cowboys an advantage.
Now, all of a sudden and out of nowhere – though not entirely puzzling given his track record of bizarre, unfortunate and freak injuries – Lee’s gone once again.
The Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker this season is now either a 2014 fourth-round pick, an outside linebacker or a player not currently on the team, acquired via free agency or a trade.
Outside linebackers Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman all had to bump inside at different points last year after Lee’s injury, with varying success. But all three players were set to compete for outside linebacker spots this year, and neither the weak side nor the strong side starting spots are set in stone.
Now it’s even more complicated.
The Lee injury puts every position out of whack. The Cowboys could be forced to use a player they wanted to start on the outside on the inside. The changes could be temporary if the Dallas Cowboys decide to bring in a player via free agency or a trade.
Inside linebackers Pat Angerer, Jonathan Vilma, Paris Lenon and Erin Henderson are all among the various options in free agency, if the Dallas Cowboys decide to go that route. They could also bring back former Cowboys like Ernie Sims or Dan Connor.
But none of them can make up for Lee, a player everyone at every position in the locker room looked up to. Replacing that combination of passion, preparation and skill would be nearly impossible for anyone.
The Cowboys have dealt with this before with Lee, but they’re not used to losing him for a year before he’s even played a game. His position was the only lock heading into the season at linebacker. Now every spot’s up for grabs.
Carter’s looking for a bounce back year and isn’t guaranteed a starting spot on the weak side. Durant’s dealt with a bunch of injuries. Wilber just moved back over from the defensive line, Holloman’s (see below) only got a year of experience and Hitchens is entering his first season as a middle linebacker.
The fact that Lee will be coaching players up instead of roaming the field defensively means there’s surprisingly now more question marks at the linebacker positions than on the defensive line, further digging a hole for a defense looking to crawl out of one after finishing last in the league statistically in 2013.
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Scouts Evaluation – DeVonte Holloman is currently the best option at MLB
IRVING, Texas — With the loss of Sean Lee there will be a couple of different ways the Dallas Cowboys will play this. The best option, in my opinion, is playing DeVonte Holloman at the middle linebacker spot.
Holloman might not have the quickness of Lee, but he does play with power at the point and has a keen nose for the ball. There were also snaps where he was right where he needed to be when it came to pass coverage. It wasn’t always perfect, but he did show some awareness. What Holloman was able to gain from last season was experience and that is really what he was lacking. Knowing it is his job, he has an even better chance to build off that experience.
Another option if you want to keep Holloman on the outside is to use rookie Anthony Hitchens. He took several reps with the first defense to test where he was at mentally and was no worse for wear. There were good fits in the run game, playing with his hands and putting himself in position to make the tackle.
What you get from Hitchens is the physical side of the game more than the athlete. Where he is going to have to make the most improvement in his game will be in the coverage aspect of the position. In this scheme, if you struggle to know where you fit in your zone drops, there are going to be issues.
The majority of this will come from feeling comfortable with the position but also having the confidence that you are not making a mistake. Look for him to continue to get more and more work with the first group in the coming weeks.
If you believe in Will McClay and this pro personnel department, allow these scouts to find you a linebacker that might not be a starter but can develop into one down the road. The way you get these types of players is usually worked through a trade. As all these teams going through minicamps and OTAs, they are looking at their players thinking that they might be short at one or two positions.
This is where McClay has to try and convince Jerry Jones (and Stephen Jones) that moving a player from a position of strength, say running back or offensive line, could land them quality linebacker in return. This scouting staff has a great understanding of these rosters around the league and without any problem can identify a player or two that fit.
The last option, and the one that I would like to avoid, is adding a veteran player that either has age or an injury history. Bill Parcells use to call these players “Hold the Fort” guys. I understand how everyone wants this front office to go out and sign a name guy, but when you have options with young players like DeVonte Holloman and Anthony Hitchens or the resources to potentially bring another young guy in through trade, why not exhaust all those possibilities first?
There is no question that the Sean Lee injury will be a big blow to this defense, but front offices don’t look at it that way. Instead, they understand the situation and address it the best way possible and that is with solid options. Plugging a hole just to plug it is not the best way to do your job. This club has options and there is plenty of time to go through every one of them.
Courtesy: Bryan Broaddus | Football Analyst/Former NFL Scout