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With Neck Injury To DeVonte Holloman, Is Linebacker Now The Critical Position For Cowboys?

Figuring out the area of most concern for the Dallas defense has been difficult, with all three components facing challenges. But the probable loss of Holloman may have clarified things.

The season could be over for 57.
The season could be over for 57.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the pre-season, the concerns about the defense of the Dallas Cowboys were spread pretty evenly around. The defensive line was looking for anyone who could rush the passer with the departure of both DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, followed by the injury to DeMarcus Lawrence. The linebacking corps was trying to figure out who was going to play where, and who would fill in for Sean Lee. The secondary kept fighting injury and could barely come up with enough bodies to make it through a pre-season game.

The trend so far has been for the Cowboys to be very cautious with injuries and bring people along slowly. Things were starting to get better. Defensive performance looked like it improved markedly from the first to the second pre-season game, and the return of players like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne offered similar hope for more progress in the third game. Players like Davon Coleman and Zach Minter gave some hope for finding more unheralded linemen who could step up the way George Selvie did in 2013.

But today's news that DeVonte Holloman is going to Houston to get a second opinion on his injured neck may have put the linebacking unit in the position of being the critical component. If the Cowboys cannot get things fixed there, the rest of the defense may not be able to play well enough to make up for it.

The loss of Holloman exposes what has been the real issue for Dallas for several years, a lack of depth. The linebacker situation has been muddled throughout the pre-season. Justin Durant has, surprisingly, emerged as the most capable at all three positions. Kyle Wilber continued to look like he has found his niche as the SAM linebacker. The Cowboys brought in the physically talented but motivationally suspect Rolando McClain, and look determined to give him every chance to become the starting MIKE linebacker, which would likely put Durant at the WILL in the starting formation. That makes a certain amount of sense, since Durant's prior experience was mostly at WILL. Bruce Carter, who struggled last year, seems to still have a role in the nickle, when Wilber may be moving back to the line to put his hand down as a pass rusher. Either Durant or McClain would come off the field (likely Durant) and Carter would be used in pass coverage.

As OCC pointed out in his comparison of three projected rosters, that leaves the Cowboys with three primary backup linebackers: Holloman, Anthony Hitchens, and Cameron Lawrence. This was under the assumption that the Cowboys would carry seven linebackers total. Cam Lawrence is a special teams contributor, but he has not shown a lot playing with the defense. Now, Holloman drops out of the equation. Given that Lawrence was more a special teamer than a player you wanted out there getting a stop with the D, you are down to five primary linebackers.

This may give rookie Will Smith a chance to make the team, but like so many others, he has been held back by injury. It would be great if he could step up, but that remains to be seen. This looks more like a situation where Will McClay and his merry band of talent seekers need to scour the league for linebackers who could be cut. They are not looking for immediate starter material, they are looking for someone who can provide depth. Dallas would likely be all right with the six names they have to work with - until one of them is unavailable. In the NFL, that is likely to happen sooner rather than later in the schedule.

With the numbers on hand, and the way things are developing with the rest of the defense, this is now a big issue for Dallas. If the expectations that Holloman is done for the year are correct, his replacement, whether from the current roster or outside, should now be the top priority for the staff to try and make sure the linebacking corps can survive the season.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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