When he is on the field Sean Lee is the clear leader of the Dallas Cowboys defensive unit, but playing middle linebacker exposes him to injury, and that's something he hasn't been able to stay away from. We love the passion that he brings but hate the toll it takes on him. Without the leader of the pack the Cowboys defense is just not the same. While Lee will return as the MIKE linebacker for his fifth season, the team will have to focus on who will be his understudy in the likely event that Lee will again miss action.
In addition to #50, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus will have Bruce Carter returning at the WILL slot. Carter will be looking to rebound from a dismal 2013 season that saw him look dazed and confused during much of his time on the field. It is hoped that an offseason of study will help the linebacker, of whom much was expected, learn what his role in the Rod Marinelli-led 4-3 defense is supposed to be. With his athleticism, Carter should thrive in this defense but his lack of familiarity held him back last year.
Looking beyond the Bruce-Lee tandem, the waters become a little more murky. Let's take a look at the linebackers currently on the 90 man roster.
|LB||Anthony Hitchens||Rookie||Draft 2014/Fourth Round|
|LB||Bruce Carter||Fourth Year||Draft 2011/Second Round|
|LB||Cameron Lawrence||Second Year||UDFA 2013|
|LB||DeVonte Holloman||Second Year||Draft 2013/Sixth Round|
|LB||Dontavis Sapp||Rookie||UDFA 2014|
|LB||Jonathan Stewart||Second Year||2013 Free Agent|
|LB||Justin Durant||Eighth Year||2013 Free Agent|
|LB||Keith Smith||Rookie||UDFA 2014|
|DE*||Kyle Wilber||Third Year||Draft 2012/Fourth Round|
|LB||Martez Wilson||Fourth Year||2013 Free Agent|
|LB||Orie Lemon||Fourth Year||UDFA 2011|
|LB||Sean Lee||Fifth Year||Draft 2010/Second Round|
|LB||Will Smith||Rookie||Draft 2014/Seventh Round|
Beyond the two former second-round draft picks, the Cowboys return veteran free agent Justin Durant and 2013 draft pick DeVonte Holloman who will contend for the SAM responsibilities. Deciding who gets the starting nod for the team could come down to a battle of Durant's experience and savvy versus Holloman's youth and instincts for the ball. I would not be surprised to see the veteran begin the season as the top dog only to be overtaken by the youngster as the season wears on. Another possibility is that Holloman could step up and earn the starting role with Kyle Wilber showing enough to be his back up. Wilber, who played as a LB in the 3-4, demonstrated that he could fill in as the SAM in the 4-3 at the close of last season. This would allow the Cowboys to consider parting ways with Justin Durant, who will be a free agent after the season.
Filling in behind Lee at the MIKE role is expected to be the responsibility of this year's fourth-round draft pick, Anthony Hitchens. Although some writers have been critical of the Cowboys for spending the pick on a player who is anticipated to be in a reserve role, as my colleague Rabblerousr astutely noted, having a solid backup at MIKE is not a luxury for Dallas, it is a necessity. Considering the struggles Dallas faced in the middle last season, drafting Hitchens for this role should be considered a wise investment by the front office.
Battling for a slot at linebacker is a pair of veteran journeymen, Orie Lemon and Martez Wilson, who each have four seasons worth of NFL experience and a pair of second-year players who spent part of last season as practice squad players, Cameron Lawrence and Jonathan Stewart. Each of the four spent some time on the Dallas roster last season, but that was primarily due to the fact that injuries took their toll on the linebacking corps as the season wore on.
These four gentlemen may, in fact, be competing for a slot that might not be available at all. Coming out of camp in 2013, Dallas carried five LBs on the 53-man roster. Lee, Carter, Durant, Holloman, and Hitchens could very well be the only linebackers kept with Wilber, the DE, as a hole card. Clearly, all four men face an uphill battle to make the Dallas Cowboys roster in 2014.
Perhaps having a better chance to hang around are a trio of rookies, who most likely be candidates for the practice squad. If one of the three is to make a serious push for a spot on the 53, the leading prospect would most likely be seventh-round draft selection Will Smith out of Texas Tech. He looks like a potential guy to develop at the (appropriate enough) WILL slot, and a guy who can shine on special teams as well. In fact if there is a player who might become a surprise addition to the roster, it could be the former Red Raider.
Also in contention for a practice squad slot will be UDFAs Keith Smith from San Jose State and Dontavis Sapp out of Tennessee. Both men face long odds of making the roster, but given some of the issues that the Cowboys faced at linebacker last season, each has an opportunity to carve out a slot on the practice squad if he can start showing up on film. This is the route Jeff Heath took last season, so both players should draw some inspiration from their new teammate.
Quite honestly, at least on paper, a linebacking corps of Lee, Carter, and Durant as the starters with Holloman and Hitchens coming in off of the bench and Will Smith on the practice squad looks to be a strong unit. Of course, any success they will experience is going to depend on their ability to stay on the field and in Carter's case an ability to master his role. Still hopes should be running high that the Cowboys will be pretty strong in the middle this season.