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Can The Cowboys Survive A Setback At Linebacker?

The Cowboys have been hit with injuries at the linebacker position the last couple years. It could very well happen again this season. Does the team have enough depth to handle it should adversity strike?

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If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, "I can’t wait to see Lee and McClain on the field together" I’d be $2.37 wealthier, and really bad at counting money.

But with the recent news of Rolando McClain violating the league’s substance abuse policy, it appears the wait just got four weeks longer. A starting group of Sean Lee (WILL), Rolando McClain (MIKE), and Anthony Hitchens (SAM) gives the Cowboys a formidable linebacker corps. The offseason acquisitions of Jasper Brinkley (two years, $6.5 mil) and Damien Wilson (fourth-round pick) provide the team with some encouraging options off the bench. Dallas looks to be in good shape at linebacker heading in to the 2015 season as many of the pieces seem to be in place.

But if recent history is any indication, the pieces are bound to get shaken up throughout the course of the season. And when that happens, are the Cowboys deep enough to handle it?

Here is a look back at the snap counts of our linebackers over the last two seasons:

2013 Snaps % of LB Snaps
Bruce Carter 875 33
Sean Lee 702 27
Ernie Sims 383 15
DeVonte Holloman 208 8
Justin Durant 199 7
Kyle Wilber 175 7
Cameron Lawrence 63 2
Kyle Bosworth 23 0.8
Orie Lemon 6 0.2

In 2013, the trio of Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Justin Durant all missed time due to injury. Collectively, they missed 12 games, but still accounted for 67% of the teams linebacker snaps. The Cowboys needed 33% contribution from the bench guys and players like Ernie Sims, DeVonte Holloman, and Kyle Wilber filled in the most when the starters weren't unavailable. I don't even think Orie Lemon is a real person; it sounds like one of the flavors of blizzard at Sonic.

2014 Snaps % of LB Snaps
Rolando McClain 633 27
Bruce Carter 519 22
Anthony Hitchens 530 23
Justin Durant 324 14
Kyle Wilber 211 9
Cameron Lawrence 76 3
Keith Smith 40 2
Sean Lee 0 0

Last year, the trio of Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Justin Durant again all missed time due to injury, only this time it was more substantial. This time they collectively missed 29 games and only accounted for 36% of the teams linebacker snaps. Of course the big part of this was because of Sean Lee’s torn ACL on his left knee during last year's OTA’s. Fortunately for the Cowboys, the team caught lightning in a bottle when they traded for Rolando McClain. Not only was he able to chew up a team leading 27% of the LB snaps, when he was on the field – he played very well. McClain graded out extremely well with a PFF score of 16.2 and was the 8th best inside linebacker in the league last year.

RoMac wasn’t the only surprise. Rookie Anthony Hitchens proved to be a dependable resource as he accounted for 23% of the LB snaps while playing all 16 games. Hitchens recorded 84 tackles and provided great versatility, playing all three linebacker positions. And now, these two pleasant surprises will join forces with Lee to make up the 2015 linebacker trio.

There is plenty of potential  in the new LB group, but there are a couple things that are alarming. First, every new snap could be Sean Lee’s final play of the season. During his five year career he has missed 43% of the games.That is worrisome.

Besides the potential absence of Lee, there is the issue of expectations around McClain. The four-game suspension isn't the problem; if the Cowboys have McClain for the remaining twelve regular season games and three playoff games, that would work. But will that happen? McClain is such a wild card when it comes to what’s going on in his head. He could have another misstep and face an even lengthier suspension. Or maybe he just wakes up one day and just isn’t feeling it anymore and decides to call it quits. Past behavior allows those types of circumstances to be put on the table.

The Cowboys defense has had to rely on so much contribution from guys outside of the starting trio these last couple years. When you factor in the injury concern and the head-case concern, it’s not far-fetched to entertain the idea that they’d have to do it again in 2015.

Taking into account the possibility that the Cowboys are without Lee or McClain for a lengthy amount of time, the snap count distribution for 2015 may look like this:

2015 Snaps % of LB Snaps
Lee OR McClain 710 30
Anthony Hitchens 650 28
Jasper Brinkley ? ?
Damien Wilson ? ?
Andrew Gachkar ? ?
Kyle Wilber ? ?
Cameron Lawrence ? ?
Keith Rivers ? ?
Mark Nzeocha ? ?

In this scenario, it's assumed that Anthony Hitchens will carry on with his iron man ways. But outside of that, it gets a little harder to project where the help might come from. This still leaves 42% of the snaps (about 970 snaps) that will need to be picked up by players off the bench. Are the Cowboys equipped with enough depth to handle such circumstances? Yes, they are.

Jasper Brinkley is the team’s top backup linebacker. But is that all he is - just a backup? He's been primarily a bench guy throughout his tenure in the NFL, starting only 33 of his 79 career games. And he's only demonstrated average play. Is he good enough to be a solid starting linebacker for Dallas?

Brinkley's first test will come early as he looks to be the lead candidate to replace McClain at the MIKE while he is suspended. Fortunately, Brinkley's strength is in the middle and he proved to be a very strong run defender for the Minnesota Vikings last season. He’s shown himself to be durable throughout his career and that is something Dallas fans won’t stop taking for granted anytime soon. He did miss the entire 2011 season due to a hip injury that required surgery, but he’s only missed one other game during the other five years of his career.

So while he wasn't a jaw-dropping free agent pickup, that's not to say he can’t be Eberflused into something valuable. Justin Durant came in and did a great job for Dallas when he was on the field. If Brinkley can show signs of similar contribution on this defense, he’s going to be a great addition.

Damien Wilson is an interesting option. As rabblerousr pointed out in his scouting report back in May, the similarities to Hitchens are plentiful. He is a smart, instinctive runner, and diagnoses plays extremely well. He is an aggressive pursuer with great striking ability. The coaching staff went looking for this type of player in the draft and they like what they found in Wilson. Great scouting, great coaching – it’s a formula that can be repeated. The Cowboys aren’t just "lucking" into these great finds.

Another exciting trait that Wilson has is his durability. This is another linebacker that just doesn’t come off the field. Oh, he gets hurt. That’s going to happen. He just keeps playing. Wilson is slated to backup Lee so there aren’t a lot of big expectations from the rookie. Of course, we heard the same thing about Hitchens last year and look how that turned out.

Andrew Gachkar is a special team’s ace, but has shown that he can be a solid contributor off the bench at linebacker. He has made the most of his opportunities and just like the other bench guys mentioned above – he’s extremely durable. Gachkar has only missed one game in his four year career with the San Diego Chargers. He also had eight starts at linebacker over the last two seasons. Last year, he logged 384 snaps with the Chargers, which would be good enough to burn through 16% of the linebacker workload for the Cowboys.

There are no real expectations of Mark Nzeocha just yet. He’s got great raw athleticism, but he's a guy that needs to be developed before being thrown in the mix of game day snaps. I am rooting for him though, if for no other reason than to be able to use the phrase, "Nzeocha Gotcha!" after he tackles somebody.

Should the Cowboys endure a bad break at this position and be left in a situation where the coaching staff needs to rely on other guys to fill in, they’ll make it work. There may be limitations on how good these guys can be in their first year with the team, but their floor is pretty high. And not only are they solid players, but their reliability means they stand a good chance of being out there and things won’t ever become scrub-a-delic like they did in 2013 when the defense had three games where they gave up over 200 yards.

I’m concerned about the amount of service the starters will give, but I feel good about the type of depth this team has should they suffer a big setback. Are you worried about Lee and McClain missing significant playing time? And if so, who do you think can step in and provide some valuable snaps?

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