What’s the Deal?
While it’s not anything new, but the Dallas 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:
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.
What we’ve seen in the offseason:
There are a couple of different ways these defensive coaches can roll with these linebackers. The 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 (photo above; #52) has been running with the first team and rookie Anthony Hitchens with the two’s while DeVonte Holloman has been playing outside.
A Look At The 2013 Season For The LBs
Bruce Carter – Carter played in 15 games in 2013 – a good number for this oft-injured unit – and finished third on the team in tackles with 122. Despite those numbers, most regard 2013 as a disappointing year for Carter – including the man himself. The common logic was that Carter would excel in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme, which was similar to his college scheme with North Carolina. It never quite clicked, however, as Carter struggled in pass coverage and was replaced in the lineup on several different occasions.
Justin Durant – Durant has not had an All-Pro career to this point, but his 2013 output was definitely a letdown from his previous body of work. Hamstring problems limited him to just 10 games, tied for the lowest number of his seven-year career. On top of that, he managed a paltry 24 tackles despite starting six games as the Cowboys’ strong side linebacker. In every other season of his career, he’s managed at least 49, and he peaked as high as 103 tackles in 2012 with Detroit. After re-injuring the hamstring in the collapse against Green Bay, Durant spent the final two weeks of the season on injured reserve.
Kyle Wilber – This is Wilber’s first full offseason at linebacker, as he didn’t discover his home at the position until roughly halfway through 2013. Originally drafted as a 3-4 outside linebacker, the Dallas Cowboys experimented with moving Wilber to defensive end in their new 4-3 – with marginal success. Wilber notched two sacks through the first half of the season, including one that forced a fumble against the Redskins. He couldn’t maintain any consistency, however, and he moved to linebacker when injuries to Sean Lee and Justin Durant depleted the position. To say he adapted quickly in an understatement, as he notched seven total tackles in his first game at linebacker – a 24-21 win against New York. All told, he recorded 31 of his 44 tackles on the season from the linebacker position – all in the last six games.
DeVonte Holloman – Holloman showed glimpses of playmaking ability during his rookie preseason, particularly when he returned an interception for a touchdown against Miami in the Hall of Fame Game last August. Unsurprisingly, injuries held him out for roughly eight weeks during the middle of the season. Perhaps the biggest indicator of Holloman’s ability was that, despite dealing with a rash of injuries, the coaching staff opted not to place the rookie on injured reserve. It paid off, as he returned for the final three weeks and registered 21 tackles and two sacks.
Anthony Hitchens – When they drafted him in May, the Dallas Cowboys sold Hitchens as a potential replacement if Sean Lee got hurt. It took less than two months for those words to prove prophetic, as Lee’s torn ACL thrust the rookie into the spotlight. He was a tackling machine for the Hawkeyes, as he finished with 270 tackles in his four-year career. The problem there is that Hitchens was a weak side linebacker in college, whereas the Dallas Cowboys hope he can potentially play in the middle. It’s going to be a steep learning curve during training camp.
Cameron Lawrence – Lawrence seemed like a longshot to even make it through training camp last year, but he worked his way onto the practice squad after a strong showing in the preseason. When the Cowboys released Will Allen, they signed Lawrence to the active roster. He mainly made his mark on special teams, finishing in a tie for second with 12 special teams tackles.
Orie Lemon – After spending time in Dallas in 2011 and 2012, Lemon signed with the Cowboys last season off Arizona’s practice squad. The Cowboys added the extra body during their bye week, as both Sean Lee and Justin Durant were unavailable. Lemon didn’t have much of a chance to make an impact, however. He appeared in three games but did not register a tackle on the season.
Will Smith – If Hitchens was drafted to be the Dallas Cowboys future Mike, then the hope for Smith is that he could develop into a Will. Given the amount of work required of a weak side linebacker in this defense, Smith could be just the guy. He was an absolute force in his final season at Texas Tech, racking up 120 tackles in 13 starts – and a whopping 86 of those were solo stops. He added 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, for good measure. A junior college transfer, Smith made 175 total tackles in 26 career appearances for the Red Raiders – an average of seven stops per game.
Dontavis Sapp – Sapp got his first crack at a starting role in his final season with the Tennessee Volunteers. At Will linebacker, he put together a 66-tackle, eight-tackle for loss season to finish third on the Tennessee defense. As a three-year reserve, he managed plenty of experience on special teams, notching four special teams tackles in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. He blocked a punt during his junior campaign.
Keith Smith – Smith was, simply put, a machine for the Spartans during his college career. He started 45 games during his four-year career, and he capped that off in 2013 by leading the nation with 159 total tackles – an average of 13.3 per game. He earned first-team All-Mountain West honors for his efforts, which saw him post nine games with 10 or more tackles. He posted two 20-tackle performances.
Joe Windsor – Windsor started 12 of 14 games at defensive end for the Huskies, where he notched 37 tackles and finished second on the team in sacks with 4.5. For his efforts, he was named third-team All MAC. Windsor added another seven sacks in 2012.
Pro Scout Bryan Broaddus on what he’s looking for in 2014: I believe this is the position that will see the most change from how things start out in camp to what we see against the 49ers opening day. Right now, Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber are the starters but as I mentioned, that could change five weeks from now. The position to keep an eye on is Mike linebacker and if Durant can hold onto his job with the additions of Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain now in the mix. We should also not discount DeVonte Holloman getting a rep or two there this camp. My gut feeling is that McClain despite all those off field issues will show up at this camp and win the job from Durant just for the reason that he is much better in coverage which is a key to playing in this scheme. McClain’s talent level is also clearly better than what I have seen from Durant.
Who Fills In For Sean Lee At Middle Linebacker?
Kavner: I’ll start out by saying I think Holloman (photo above; #57) should get a chance as a front-runner to start at one of the linebacker spots, but my answer for this is a guy we haven’t seen in a Dallas uniform. The signing of Rolando McClain was as low-risk as it gets, and even if McClain plays 50 percent of the defensive snaps, the Dallas Cowboys are only surrendering a sixth-round pick for a seventh-rounder. One could guess with the way the contract was structured, the Cowboys believe he could end up playing significant snaps, and I’ll say he winds up the starter at middle linebacker. McClain was a top-10 talent and may be the most physically gifted linebacker now on the Dallas Cowboys roster. His talent was never the issue. After last season, the Cowboys need good football players on defense, even if that means taking a chance on a guy others wouldn’t. He should start toward the bottom of the depth chart as camp begins, but his reps could increase quickly if he comes to Oxnard more mentally strong and into the game and avoids the off-field distractions.
Helman: I want to say McClain, because a guy with his talent could make a significant impression if he shows up ready to work and seizes the starting job. I need to see that to believe it, however, and McClain’s litany of setbacks makes me wary. Instead, I’m going with the early favorite – the veteran, Justin Durant. He’s better than he demonstrated during his 24-tackle 2013 season, and he’s got six other years of experience to prove it – it was just two years ago that he posted a 103-tackle season in Detroit. He’s also familiar with the system, having played something similar during his time with the Lions. More than anything else, I think injuries prevented him from making a bigger impact last year – he was playing a fantastic game against Green Bay last December when his second hamstring injury of the season sent him to the injured reserve. I don’t think Durant is going to make anyone forget about Sean Lee, but I think he’s capable of a much better effort than he put out last season. I like his odds to hold off the young guns during training camp and be the starting Mike linebacker, provided he can stay healthy.
Eatman: What I think should happen doesn’t appear to be what’s going to happen. Since the injury to Sean Lee I’ve thought the Dallas Cowboys should hand it over to Holloman and let him ride with the position. To me, what he did last year in just two games, should give you enough hope that he can get better with an entire offseason of work. There’s something about his instincts that are so intriguing. Last year in the preseason, Holloman was around the ball as much as some offensive players. And when he got the ball, he made plays with it. But as a middle linebacker, being around the ball and making tackles is a must. With Lee out this year, it was a great time to let him take over the job from Day 1. However, Durant and Hitchens will have a say in this, too. Unless he gets hurt, I see Justin Durant winning the job because of his experience and I understand that it’s a “win-now” mentality for the coaches. They can’t worry about the future right now. Still, if Holloman had received most of the summer reps, I think it would’ve been close enough to let the young guy take over. Who knows, maybe he wins it at training camp, but I still see Durant starting Week 1 against the 49ers. Personally, I would’ve liked to see Holloman in that role.
Broaddus: This is a question that most likely will not be answered until this squad takes on the Denver Broncos in that final preseason game. Before Rolando McClain was added to the roster, I would have thought that Holloman would have beat Justin Durant out for the spot, but now that has all changed. Holloman will stay on the outside which means that McClain, Durant and rookie Anthony Hitchens will all get a shot at the job. If I were a betting man, I would put my money down on McClain because he is the best fit for what the scheme requires. As the Mike linebacker, you have to play the run but also be able to handle coverage as well. As well as Durant can play the run, it’s in the passing game where I believe that he gets exposed. In studying McClain while in Oakland awareness and execution in this area was his strength. Rolando McClain should be the replacement due to the fact that he is more of a complete player.