Ever since DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher left the Dallas Cowboys in free agency, everyone knew that there were more questions than answers for the team on defense. But we were able to console ourselves with the knowledge that the team still had the rock of the defense to rally around in Sean Lee.
That rapidly departed in the direction of perdition in a nice wicker hamper the first day of OTAs. With Lee on IR for his ACL (a couple of acronyms I am already so blasted weary of), the linebacking corps for Dallas is now plagued by just as many unanswered questions as the defensive line. Based on coverage in the media and some comments made by others on Twitter, I am not absolutely sure where any of the linebackers currently on the roster would line up. A few are more likely to go in one position than others, but right now the assignment of duties as the MIKE, SAM, or WILL seems to be very much in a mix and match mode for Rod Marinelli and Matt Eberflus.
Just as the uncertainty about who is going to line up where is quite similar to how things are for the D line, the numbers also look much the same. Dallas currently carries 11 linebackers of various stripes, and will probably only have six or seven on the final 53. That's a lot of weeding out to do.
In case you missed them, here are the previous installments in my series on the roster:
Quarterbacks || Running backs || Tight ends || Wide receivers || Offensive line || Defensive line
Here is how I see the current slate of linebacker candidates (going in alphabetical order, just because I haven't before):
Really, really needs to step up: Bruce Carter is one of three players who is hearing a lot about how he needs to start carrying his weight/living up to his potential/getting his head out of an anatomically impossible position (we'll hear about the others in the penultimate episode of my roster review). When Lee first went down, some thought Carter was now in line to replace him at MIKE, but all indications from the OTAs and minicamp practices after that are that Carter is staying outside. It seems he has seen work at both the WILL and SAM positions.
Wherever he winds up, there is no doubt that he has to do a better job in reading plays and dropping into coverage. Carter did make a lot of plays in 2013 - his 74 tackles were third on the team - but he needs to make them faster, before yards are gained, and he needs to do better in pass coverage and being in position. No other linebacker is going to be as closely scrutinized as Carter, and he may legitimately be the key player in this group.
Is he good enough? Consider these words about Justin Durant from a conveniently timed article by Bryan Broaddus.
All I have heard listening to coaches talk about how important the MIKE linebacker is in this scheme while in coverage, that this responsibility will be too much for Durant to handle. As long as the play is in front of him, he has been fine but I have also seen him trying to drop, redirect and that has not gone as smoothly. Covering ground in coverage in my opinion is not one of his strengths.
Given that Durant was getting the bulk of the snaps at MIKE by the end of the minicamp, those are not exactly words to warm the cockles of your heart. Based on that one evaluation, perhaps Durant would be better playing the SAM in running situations. Sadly, the Cowboys already have other, good-looking options for that.
Right place, right time: When Anthony Hitchens was announced as the Cowboys fourth-round pick, there was a lot of head shaking and puzzlement at what looked to be a strange, almost pointless pick. Why take a MIKE linebacker that high when you have one of the best in the business already on the roster?
Needless to say, it became a lot less pointless when Lee was helped off the practice field. Now, Hitchens is likely going to see some serious playing time. He mostly got reps with the second team defense once Durant was able to participate fully. The team would probably prefer to not put the starting job on the shoulders of a rookie, but he could force the issue if he has an outstanding camp and preseason. Even if he just fills a backup role, he is almost certain to have a bigger impact than anyone predicted when he was picked.
How will he be used? Of the remaining linebackers, I believe DeVonte Holloman is the one player who is the most certain to be secure in his roster position, although he may not necessarily be a starter. That may not seem to make sense, but Holloman could contend to start at WILL and SAM, and may still be in the mix for MIKE. I figure he will at worst be the top backup for one or more positions, and right now, I am not as certain about any other player hanging on to their job.
More than just a camp body? Cameron Lawrence hung on as a special teams guy and occasional fill in last season. I don't think that is enough to make it this year, and I don't know if he can claw his way high enough on the depth chart to stick around on the 53 man roster. I just think the team needs more, and can find more elsewhere. He is probably the second longest shot in this group.
Trying to break through. Orie Lemon has been on the fringes for the Cowboys the past couple of years, making the gameday roster in eight games in 2012 and 2013. This is probably his last shot. However, he may have a better chance than some others, just because the team keeps bringing him back. That sometimes indicates they see something there. Even if Lemon is not on the roster for the start of the season, his phone number will probably be kept handy for backfill duty late in the year.
The wild wild card. Nobody seemed to have a clue that Dallas was going to sign Rolando McClain. Of course, the fact he was retired (for the second time) from the NFL was a decent distraction. McClain joins a list of incredibly low risk signings the Cowboys have made this year, like Henry Melton, Brandon Weeden and Uche Nwaneri. Dallas can drop him (or any of the other names listed) at any time. They have to be able to, because McClain's track record is not encouraging. The first thing to watch for is what kind of shape he is in as he arrives at Oxnard.
But if his heart is in it now, and if he can keep himself out of trouble off the field as well as on, this guy has legitimate first round talent. He could be just what the Cowboys need. There are a bunch of hurdles to get over with him, and I put his odds of making the team at somewhere in the 10 to 20 percent range, but if he does . . . oh, my.
The sleeper? Dontavis Sapp was one of those names that kept popping up in odd places during the OTAs and minicamp, in a good way. A bit unheralded, he may be another one of those UDFA guys that was a little better than everyone thought, the kind the Cowboys seem to have a knack for digging up. Maybe he is mostly looking for a practice squad slot, but expect him to make things interesting.
That other draft pick. All through the practices held so far, I kept seeing people say that Will Smith would look better when the pads come on. It seems a little odd, but the people saying it are truly smarter about this stuff than I am. Additionally, they seemed to base it on studying how he performed in college. I am going to take them at their word, and expect Smith to probably be a key backup, perhaps at the WILL, and a special teams stalwart to make the team.
Found his niche. Kyle Wilber seemed to flourish a bit after the staff moved him from DE to the SAM position last season. He is the leader going into camp, but may also get some work at the WILL. As a former fourth-round pick, the way he has approached things and finally found his fit on the defense will probably keep him on the team.
Who? I did not even know Joe Windsor was on the team until I started compiling the names of all the linebackers. That kinda says "camp body" to me.
There you go. I see three groups here. I think Durant, Hitchens, Holloman and Wilber are pretty much going to make the team. Carter is almost in that group, but given his issues last season, I still place him with McClain and Smith as the main contenders from the rest of the roster spots, and one name may be in jeopardy just because the team could only roll with six linebackers all together. All the others need to break out during camp to win a starting spot away from one of those seven names.
None of that is firm, of course, because we have a long way to go in the competition and evaluation process. Stay tuned, folks. Almost anything could happen with this bunch.