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Wrapping Up The Offseason: Did The Dallas Cowboys Improve At Linebacker?

Before the dead zone is over and the Cowboys head out to Oxnard, we ask if they have improved from 2015 to 2016?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

[After that disastrous 2015 season, that saw the Cowboys go 4-12 thanks to the injury bug, we are going to examine the entire roster from top to bottom and ask:

Have the Dallas Cowboys improved?

That may seem like a loaded question but in terms of looking inside and out and taking every variable into the equation that question can be answered. Do you believe that the Cowboys improved from one year to the next?]

Alright, we've made our way to the linebackers, a spot where at once it looked pretty formidable but now has some serious questions. Pretty much everywhere on defense has taken some blows, and linebacker is no exception.

Last Season:

WLB - Sean Lee (played 14 games, made first Pro Bowl appearance, led team in tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT.)

MLB - Rolando McClain (played 11 games, 80 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT)

LB - Anthony Hitchens (started 9 games, 67 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF)

OLB - Andrew Gachkar (appeared in 16 games, started 1 game,  14 tackles)

OLB - Kyle Wilber (started 6 games, 24 tackles)

LB - Damien Wilson (drafted in fourth round 2015, 15 total tackles)

LB - Mark Nzeocha (drafted in seventh round 2015, red-shirted rookie season)

LB - Keith Smith (appeared in 5 games)

This Season:

WLB - Sean Lee

MLB - Rolando McClain (suspended 10 games for violation of NFL Drug Policy)

MLB - Anthony Hitchens (will compete for MIKE spot)

OLB - Andrew Gachkar (will compete for MIKE spot, special teams ace)

OLB - Kyle Wilber (will compete for SAM position)

LB - Damien Wilson (will compete for MIKE spot)

LB - Mark Nzeocha (will compete for MIKE and SAM position)

MLB - Jaylon Smith (Top-5 player drafted in second round with nerve damage, will red-shirt 2016 season)

LB - Keith Smith

LB - Deion King (UDFA out of Norfolk State)

LB - Derek Akunne (UDFA out of North Texas)

LB - Brandon Hepburn (former seventh-round pick in 2015 from Florida A&M)

The linebacker position is certainly not set but they sure have a lot of guys sitting on the roster. Matt Eberflus has done a nice job coaching up linebackers but he will have his hands full this offseason. When you look at this roster, you see one Pro Bowler and a bunch of backups fighting to be a starter.

Sean Lee is great and was able to play in 14 games last year but we cannot forget that he's had a litany of injuries since being drafted by the Cowboys in 2010. If he stays at weakside linebacker despite Rolando McClain's suspension then he could have another really good year, perhaps make his second Pro Bowl or better. Speaking of McClain, there really is no point keeping him on the roster or giving him practice reps, he's shown time and time again that he simply doesn't care. Wash your hands and be done with 55.

That leaves a huge hole to be filled by a linebacker that is likely not qualified to do so. Hitchens has been a fine player for the Cowboys but he can easily be eliminated by a good fullback or tight end. He's not the type of thumper and run-stuffer that they had with McClain. Andrew Gachkar has played spot duty but he's more of a special teams type of contributor. Kyle Wilber is a SAM linebacker who was once an OLB in a 3-4 scheme, finding his niche at middle linebacker is highly unlikely.

Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha will be given an opportunity to show their athleticism as they compete for a potential spot. However, don't count on either really becoming that middle linebacker that the Cowboys need. Jaylon Smith is a perfect replacement for 2017, that is if his nerve can regenerate before next offseason. He may be a Hall-of-Fame type player or he could never play football again, that's his reality. All four guys at the bottom are competing for a special teams spot or practice squad, none of them may make the roster but Deon King had impressive tape at Norfolk state.

So, have the Dallas Cowboys improved at linebacker?

This is a resounding no because their draft pick can't play, their middle linebacker is suspended, and they have a ton of so-so talent-level players competing for a very important position. You can't pick up a quality MIKE off the street. The Cowboys either need to search the waiver wire and bring back Justin Durant or figure something out. I would venture to say that right now their linebacker position is worse than 2015. Right now, it's Sean Lee and a class of misfits.

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