Continuing our perusal of the Cowboys defense looking for nuggets of improvement, we now look to the middle of the defense for some reassurance. Did the Cowboys sign enough linebackers...err...I mean improve at linebacker?
2014: Rolando McClain, Sean Lee (IR), Justin Durant (IR post week 6), Anthony Hitchens, Bruce Carter, Kyle Wilber
2015: Sean Lee, Rolando McClain (Susp. 4 games), Anthony Hitchens, Jasper Brinkley, Keith Rivers, Andrew Gachkar, Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson
WLB- Sean Lee
The catalyst of Rod Marinelli's defense is partly on the shoulders of the weakside linebacker. Sean Lee is one of the most instinctual and intelligent players in the NFL. Now that he's back and has finally had his partially torn anterior cruciate ligament repaired, big things are expected from him in 2015. Lee has been the ultimate footballer when he's remained on the field but sometimes his body quits on him. The Cowboys are hoping now that he's healthy and ready to roll that he will return to the Pro Bowl form he's capable of. He's certainly got the mindset and pedigree to be special.
MLB- Rolando McClain
The Cowboys will have to wait to see what it looks like to have Lee and McClain together. That stems from the everlasting head-scratching behavior that McClain can never seem to shake. Speaking only on the player, the Cowboys will have a beast once again patrolling the middle of the defense. His nastiness and hard-hitting mentality make him a tough go for any adversary. McClain is coming off a campaign where he finished a runner-up for the Comeback Player of the Year award. He was PFF's seventh rated linebacker last season, if he can just focus on football, then we may see a repeat performance.
SLB- Anthony Hitchens
Man is Hitchens really serving up some crow to his naysayers. Like Lee, he's instinctual and knows how to be in position to make the tackle. Last season, Hitchens played all over the field and did so admirably. Not bad for a forth-round reach, huh? This season he will get the opportunity to play on the strong side. As a SAM, the primary objective is for run support and as an extra pass rusher. Though Hitchens isn't the prototypical size, he's a fast learner and could serve the Cowboys well. If not for anything else, the Cowboys have one helluva backup plan at all three positions.
MLB2- Jasper Brinkley
Brinkley has been getting the bulk of the work this offseason with McClain choosing to rehab away from Valley Ranch. Brinkley will also likely get the start come opening day. In Minnesota, he played very well and was one of the more talented defenders they had. PFF had him as their 16th best inside linebacker and was very good at stopping the run with a +7.7 grade. He's another smart player with good instincts and a high motor, what's not to love? The Cowboys originally signed him in case McClain wasn't around. Brinkley was paid like a starting caliber MIKE and now he'll get a tremendous opportunity.
SLB2- Andrew Gachkar
Though he can play WILL, he looks the part of a SAM to me. He's got really good athleticism and that motor can really go. He was brought in as another versatile guy that has made his money on special teams. After working with Rich Bisaccia in San Diego, it was obvious why he was brought in. The dude can tackle and that's very important in the kicking game as Jason Garrett prefers to call it. Gachkar has many different things to offer this team and may have multiple roles as the season rolls on. PFF shows that Gachkar had 12 tackles on teams, only one missed tackle and a cumulative grade of +4.5. It's that obvious.
WLB- Keith Rivers
Rivers fits the story of taking a chance on a former first-round pick. Dallas has loved doing so just about every year, and they have the chops and coaching staff to make something of Rivers. He played mostly WILL last season but also tried some SAM. He was able to start three games for Buffalo, but didn't fair too well in any category. The Cowboys have surplus of linebackers on this roster, if Eberflus can't find a role for him, it's on to the next one for this journeyman.
MLB- Damien Wilson
My pet cat is about to take the NFL by storm...just kidding. Anyway, Wilson is in the same mold of an Anthony Hitchens. Just an all around good player who played really well in the Big 10. Like Hitchens, Wilson is a run-and-hit type of linebacker and Eberflus really likes those types. He can diagnose the play and get the runner down. If he can take to the same teachings like Hitchens got then he'll be ready for more playing time. Like most though, he will first have to earn his chops on special teams. Wilson is a pretty solid tackler, so that's a darn good start.
SLB- Kyle Wilber
Remember when we all finally thought Wilber found a role. Well he's kind of buried on this roster again if you think about it. He can rush the passer and played well in 2013 when he became to interim starter. However, there is a lot of talent at the linebacker position on this roster and it will take a lot for him to break through. We saw very little of him last season after many thought he would challenge for the starting SAM role. He'll get opportunity to change folk's minds in camp, but will that be enough time?
My take: The sheer numbers would say yes, the Cowboys improved. The losses of Durant and Carter may sting but the additions outweigh those burns. Durant couldn't stay on the field for the Cowboys and Carter couldn't find a level of consistency though he was a supremely athletic guy who made plays. The McClain suspension will hurt some but the front office and coaches prepared for that by giving the reins over to Brinkley from day one. All in all, this unit looks to be pretty solid, but we won't know until we see Lee and McClain together.