It seems that the Dallas Cowboys draft a linebacker every year and that continued in 2016 when they selected Jaylon Smith out of Notre Dame in the second round. While Smith was seen as one of the best prospects in the draft before his knee injury, there was a consensus opinion that he would not be able to play in 2016. However, Cowboys' team doctor Dan Cooper performed the surgery on the knee, leading some to believe that the Cowboys may have more information on the degenerative knee than some. When Smith himself proclaimed that there was a possibility he could play in 2016, and Jerry Jones backed it up, there was hope he could see the field this year.
However, ESPN's Ed Werder reported on Wednesday that Smith's knee has had no significant improvement and he will likely not play in 2016.
If Smith had played, the Cowboys' starting linebacker trio would've consisted of Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, and Smith. But with Smith on the shelf, Anthony Hitchens will likely start. Coming into his third year out of Iowa, Hitchens has had an inconsistent NFL tenure. In 2014, Hitchens came on really well, proving his naysayers wrong. When Dallas selected Hitchens, many were upset because Florida State's Telvin Smith was available. But Hitchens proved that he deserved to be in the starting lineup. In 2015, his play declined. He looked lost at times in coverage and there were times where he was too late to get to the hole in the running game. Granted, 2014 and 2015 were complete opposites for the Cowboys and if the team can get back to having success on offense, it could pay huge dividends to the defense, benefiting Hitchens in the process.
The problem lies in the area of health. Both Lee and McClain, more so Lee, are health concerns. Lee has had many nagging injuries in his NFL career. When he's on the field, however, Dallas' defense is a night-and-day improvement. But if he gets injured, the Cowboys could be forced to rely upon the likes of unproven guys such as Andrew Gachkar, Damien Wilson or Mark Nzeocha. Or the Cowboys could slide Hitchens into the Will position and let a veteran like Kyle Wilber take over at the Sam, but even he hasn't done much in his NFL career to warrant a good feeling about him starting. Dallas' linebacker corps in thin and its injury-prone, and bringing in a player with a knee condition, and for all we know could never play again, does not solve that problem.
People scratched their head when Dallas traded away a late draft pick for McClain, but coming to Dallas has helped him turn his career around. At 6'4, 255 pounds with all of the athleticism in the world and in a defense that tailors to his strengths, McClain has been extremely productive at times. But there are also times where he has lapses on defense. Nevertheless, McClain is still only 26-years-old and a good performance in 2016 could mean a nice payday for the Alabama product entering free agency. But if the issues of inconsistency continue like they did last year, Dallas' will be looking elsewhere for a starting lineup.
A healthy trio of Lee, McClain, and Smith would make up one of the best linebacker groups in football. But because there are so many moving parts, like Lee's health, McClain's inconsistencies, and Smith's long-term playing career, there are reasons to believe that the Cowboys could find themselves searching for yet another linebacker in the draft, perhaps this time in the first round. But if things can fall into place and the Cowboys can steer clear of the injury bug, this is a group that could be dominant.