Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.
A look back: The Cowboys signed Lee to a six-year extension worth $42 million in August, believing he is one of their cornerstone pieces and one of the best linebackers in the NFL … provided he could stay healthy.
Lee missed five games with hamstring and neck injuries and finished second on the defense with 123 tackles. He led the Cowboys with four interceptions, which shows how much of a playmaker he can be and how poor the secondary was that he could miss so many games and still lead in the category.
The Cowboys viewed Carter as the prototype weak-side linebacker when they moved to the 4-3 but he struggled in space. He had a hard time tracking down running backs and tight ends and lacked confidence. When he played well in 2012 it came after Lee suffered a toe injury, but he was unable to raise his game to a similar level after Lee’s injury in 2013. The coaches were so frustrated with Carter, that they had him splitting time with Ernie Sims, who is a free agent.
Durant was signed to a moderate free-agent deal to be the strong-side linebacker. He was not bad but he had only 30 tackles. He played only 197 snaps because he came off the field in nickel packages. His season ended early because of a hamstring injury.
Coach Jason Garrett believes injury creates opportunity and the Cowboys might have lucked into Durant’s replacement in 2014 in Wilber. Unable to make some headway at defensive end, Wilber settled in at the strong side spot in the final six games and did a more than decent job against the run. Holloman’s rookie season was slowed because of a neck injury, but he had his best game in the finale versus the Philadelphia Eagles with 12 tackles, two tackles for a loss and two quarterback hurries.
A look ahead: For Lee the story continues to be his health. He is everything a team wants in a linebacker … again, provided he is healthy. He is as important to the defense as Tony Romo is to the offense. He has a calming effect on the group when he is on the field.
If Lee can remain on the field, then the defense should be better in 2014.
Carter is at a crossroads. His rookie year was a wash because of a knee injury suffered at North Carolina. He flashed in 11 games in 2012, leading the Cowboys to believe he could be a cornerstone player like Lee. After his performance in 2013, he could face a challenge for a starting spot. He is entering the final year of his contract and needs to perform to be paid. Maybe that is what will light the fire a little bit more.
Durant could find himself as a salary-cap casualty. The Cowboys would save $1.25 million in room, and they will be looking here, there and everywhere for space to get under the cap and to sign players. Wilber and Holloman are intriguing prospects and could take over the strong-side starting spot with one of the training camp battles to watch.
A look out: The Cowboys will have to focus their attention on the defensive line in the draft -- and perhaps free agency -- but they should not just ignore the linebacker spot.
From the first day of last offseason Monte Kiffin wondered who the backup to Lee would be and the Cowboys had to mix and match at the spot with limited success.
Linebackers in the 4-3 have to be able to run and cover. Carter has those tools but has not put it together enough to make him a long-term option at this point. Since he is entering the final year of his deal, finding his potential replacement should be a real option.