Rod Marinelli has worked with a mostly lackluster defensive line for the Dallas Cowboys but he has had the fortunate presence of Sean Lee to lead the defense for a number of years. A lot was made of the Cowboys' decision to draft Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft, especially considering the fact that that would sit out the entire 2016 season. With Anthony Hitchens playing solid last season, the addition of a healthy Jaylon can elevate the defense.
It is about time that the National Football League recognizes the talent, intuition and shear will that Sean Lee has displayed over the years. He had another excellent season and was awarded as a member of the first team All-Pro this season for the first time in his career. Sean Lee will continue to lead the defense and mentor Jaylon Smith. Look for Dallas to lock him up in the near future.
Justin Durant was brought back to Dallas prior to the 2016 season for his second stint with the Cowboys. He performed well last year and made an impression early in the season with a game-clinching interception against the Washington Redskins. He enters this off season as a free agent once again and may dabble in the idea of retiring (again). The Cowboys should attempt to re-sign Justin Durant given his veteran savvy, the depth he provides and the potential cheap contract.
Much has been made about Jaylon Smith's potential and addition to the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones has already made claims that he could solidify the best draft class in Dallas Cowboys history. Assuming Smith is able to recover fully by the time training camp starts, his work during OTAs and the preseason will be important preparation for the speed and talent of the regular season in the National Football League. Jaylon Smith can provide Dallas with the strongest set of linebackers they have had since Demarcus Ware's prime, or going all the way back to the Ken Norton days during the 1990s dynasty years.
Damien Wilson was drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. He appeared in all sixteen games and started six of them as the strongside linebacker. He was a solid piece in the linebacking core and he will remain part of the linebacking core in the future.
Kyle Wilber was drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth round of the 2012 draft. He spent time on the defensive line during the 2013 and 2014 seasons before finding his groove in the 2015 season at strongside linebacker. He entered the 2016 as the starting strongside linebacker but was outplayed by Damien Wilson. Wilber upped his play on special teams and forced a key turnover against the Minnesota Vikings and also recovered a fumble against the Detroit Lions a few weeks later. Wilber clearly has the talent to remain in the mix and will be an important backup in the future.
Andrew Gachkar enters the off-season as a free agent. In his two seasons with the Cowboys, he appeared in all 32 games but only recorded 24 tackles. Although he is regarded as a backup linebacker, the lack of production and abundant depth around him makes him expendable. Look for the Cowboys to not re-sign Gachkar.
Anthony Hitchens was drafted the Cowboys in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. After Rolando McClain was suspended, he had a career year during the 2016 season where he started all 16 games alongside Sean Lee where he recorded 78 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He provided stability to a middle linebacker position tht has had to deal with the McClain issues. At 24, Hitchens should be able to continue improving his play and give Dallas a strong core of linebackers.
Mark Nzeocha was drafted in the final round of the 2015 draft. He was used sparingly and split his time as the backup middle linebacker or a player on special teams. Look for Nzeocha to find his way as a permanent fixture on the special teams if the Cowboys are able to find more refined depth through the draft.
Let's keep this simple. Rolondo McClain should be let go faster than Dallas gives up on Randy Gregory. In a time where the Dallas Cowboys are gelling with youth and talent, there is no reason to re-sign and re-incorporate this mess into the locker room.
Summary of Predictions
Starters: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens and Jaylon Smith
This trifecta gives Dallas the most formidable set of linebackers they have had in recent memory. It will off-load the pressure on the defensive line and will continue to provide leadership and experience to the Dallas defense. It gets their three best linebackers on the field at once.
Backups: Justin Durant, Damien Wilson, Kyle Wilber
Look for the Dallas Cowboys to rotate frequently and use Damien Wilson and Justin Durant in the lineup.
Reserves: Mark Nzeocha
Among a stacked unit, Mark Nzeocha will continue seeing time at special times but will be fairly limited at the linebacker position.
Let go: Rolando McClain and Andrew Gachkar