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Jaylon Smith's development could trigger big change in Cowboys D

NFL Nation reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Dallas Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2016, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2017.

LINEBACKER

Under contract: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, Jaylon Smith, Jeremiah George

Free agents: Justin Durant, Andrew Gachkar. (Note: Rolando McClain, who was suspended for the 2016 season, will remain under contract with the Cowboys in 2017)

A look back: Only the coaches kept Sean Lee from playing in every game for the first time in his career. He was held out of the meaningless season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles as he was battling some knee soreness.

In 15 games, the coaches credited Lee with 174 tackles, a team high, and 12 tackles for loss, another team high. He also had four quarterback pressures, two pass deflections and a fumble recovery. Against the New York Giants in Week 14 he was credited with 22 tackles, a team record for a single game.

Somehow, Lee only made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement but he was named a first-team All-Pro.

With McClain suspended, Hitchens handled the middle linebacker duties and responded with 104 tackles, according to the coaches’ count. He also had 1.5 sacks, four tackles or loss, five quarterback pressures and two pass deflections. Wilson moved into the starting strong-side linebacker job as the season wore on and showed up a lot more than he did as a rookie in 2015. He was credited with 35 tackles, a half sack, four tackles for loss and three quarterback pressures. He also played some in the sub packages with injuries to Hitchens and Durant.

Durant signed with the Cowboys before training camp opened and was slowly worked back into shape. He missed three games with injuries but was productive as a sub-package linebacker. He has decent cover skills but was able to shore up the front when the Cowboys went to a three-down linemen and six-defensive back look.

Wilber was re-signed as a free agent mostly because of his special-teams skills but he also showed the ability to play strong-side linebacker and defensive end when needed. He led the Cowboys with two fumble recoveries. Gachkar was also mostly a special-teamer but played fairly well in the finale with his most extended work on defense, finishing with five tackles.

Nzeocha mostly played a special-teams role but was inactive for 10 games.

A look ahead: Lee turns 31 in July and is coming off his best season. He was able to maintain his health for the entire season and the hope is his injury history is a thing of the past. He is the defensive leader and best playmaker on the unit. His presence makes a difference.

Hitchens is a reliable and multi-faceted player. He can play all three linebacker roles and fill spots on the sub packages as well. Wilson should continue to get better as well.

The biggest hope for the Cowboys, however, is Smith. He did not play as a rookie because of a serious knee injury suffered in Notre Dame’s final game of the 2015 season. Some teams were reticent to take him because of a nerve issue, but the Cowboys picked him in the second round anyway, knowing he would likely miss the season.

Feeling is starting to return to the leg, which is a sign the nerve is regenerating, but he continues to wear a brace to help lift his foot. The Cowboys and Smith do not doubt he will be on the field in 2017, even with the brace. By the end of the season he said his speed was returning and he was moving well laterally as well.

A look out: The Cowboys want linebackers who can run and hit. Speed matters in this defense. The Cowboys have drafted at least one linebacker in the last 12 drafts, so odds are they will add at least one this spring as well.

Durant thought about retirement last year before re-signing with the Cowboys and could be pondering it again. Gachkar has a fan in special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and can play all three linebacker spots as well. Even if both re-sign, that would not preclude the Cowboys from looking for linebacker help.

If Smith comes close to the potential he showed at Notre Dame -- he would’ve been a top-five pick if not for the knee injury -- then the Cowboys have the makings of one of the best draft classes ever with Smith, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott.

The pairing of Lee and Smith could give the Cowboys one of the best linebacker duos in the league. With the continued development of Hitchens, who is entering the final year of his contract, and Wilson, the Cowboys would have their best linebacker group since early in the Wade Phillips era.