When the mothership article that spawned this series about camp battles was written, Rolando McClain had yet to be suspended. Initially, this was just about the SAM linebacker position, where we don't have a true incumbent. Now that McClain has been suspended, it throws other players in the mix as the Cowboys now need a new MIKE linebacker for the first four games, at least, depending on how McClain handles the rest of the offseason and training camp.
First, the mothership's take (pre-McClain suspension):
6. SAM Linebacker - Heading toward camp, it's safe to say Sean Lee is the starter at weak side linebacker, and Rolando McClain - when healthy - is the starter in the middle. What we don't know is who will play on the strong side when the Cowboys are in their base defense. Anthony Hitchens is a logical choice, given his versatility, but Kyle Wilber also has experience at the position. On top of that, Dallas signed free agent Keith Rivers in March, and he's got a wealth of experience on the outside. That trio should create quite a competition for the job.
The SAM position is an open battle, especially now that McClain is missing and they need two new starters. Anthony Hitchens put together a remarkable rookie season, and when you rank the Cowboys linebackers, he probably comes in third. So he would be a logical choice. But his versatility means he could move back over to the MIKE for McClain and put Kyle Wilber out at the SAM. Wilber is a legitimate candidate for the SAM anyway, a position that started working for him in the later stages of last season.
You can throw Jasper Brinkley into the mix, too. He could be an option at the MIKE, but the Cowboys would probably need to sub for him in nickel packages. They could opt to start Hitchens at the SAM then slide him over to the MIKE in nickel situations. Keith Rivers is another experienced player who could factor into the SAM position. Andrew Gachkar is probably only here for depth and special teams, and draft pick Damien Wilson is an unknown right now.
So you really have two situations, the mix of linebackers while McClain is suspended, then the mix once he returns.
My best guess (during McClain's suspension): Anthony Hitchens plays the SAM in the base defense and Jasper Brinkley plays the MIKE, which the Cowboys are in roughly 25% of a game. When the Cowboys go nickel, which is actually what they play most of the time, Brinkley comes out, Hitchens goes in as the nickel MIKE and Sean Lee just stays on the field all the time.
My best guess (after McClain's suspension): McClain replaces Brinkley as the MIKE in the base and the nickel, and Hitchens gets rotated in at the MIKE when not playing SAM to help keep McClain fresh. Sean Lee will continue to be Sean Lee.
A lot of permutations of linebackers here, so let's hear how you would set the players if you were running the show. Sound off in the comments.
Previous camp battle articles
Cowboys Position Battles (Training Camp 2015): Defensive Tackle
Cowboys Position Battles (Training Camp 2015): Cornerback
Cowboys Position Battles (Training Camp 2015): Free Safety
Cowboys Position Battles (Training Camp 2015): Backup QB