Cowboys reporter Todd Archer breaks down the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2014, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2015.
A look back: It started out poorly last May when Lee was lost for the season because of a knee injury. He was their best playmaker on defense and the heart of the unit. It just added a question to a defense full of questions.
Throughout the season, linebackers coach Matt Eberflus mixed and matched his guys because of injuries, but as a group the linebackers performed well.
McClain was picked up in a next-to-nothing trade with the Baltimore Ravens and finished second on the team in tackles despite missing three games. Durant was having his best season before it ended because of injury. Carter was maddening at times, but led the Cowboys with five interceptions and played better down the stretch.
Hitchens proved to be a jack of all trades, starting games at all three linebacker spots. He finished with 100 tackles, according to the coaches’ breakdown. When he was picked, the Cowboys hoped the fourth-rounder could be a serviceable backup to Lee and play special teams. Wilber also had some moments in spot duty as a strongside linebacker.
A look ahead: Lee will be back in 2015, which is good news, but the rest of the group is in a state of flux because of free agency.
If the Cowboys re-sign McClain, then Lee can play the weakside spot. If not, he will return to his middle linebacker spot. It will be difficult to define how much McClain is worth because this was the first time he has had success at this level. The Cowboys got lucky with him and he might realize this is a good spot for him to remain and not just go to the highest bidder in free agency.
Carter and Durant are also interesting studies. Carter has all the athletic ability in the world, but there are stretches of play where you wonder how much he likes football. Durant was lighting it up but has durability concerns. Carter turns 27 next month. Durant turns 30 in September.
Hitchens showed incredible toughness playing through a high ankle sprain late in the season that earned him points throughout the organization. Is he a full-time starter or a fill-in replacement? What’s his best spot? It might be the Will linebacker, but he has some natural middle linebacker skills, too.
A look out: If they are unable to keep their free agents – or unwilling, depending on price level – the Cowboys have to find help.
Without McClain, Carter or Durant, the starters going into the season would be Lee, Hitchens and Wilber and plenty of questions with the depth. The answers would likely be low-cost free agents, such as Durant two years ago, and the draft, such as Hitchens in 2014. They had better be able to run and rally to the ball. That's what made the group successful in 2014.
McClain was a Pro Bowl alternate. With a full offseason of work and another year in the system, his play should improve. Putting him and Lee on the field together could give the Cowboys their best 4-3 linebacker pairing since Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen.
In Eberflus, the Cowboys have a coach who can develop players and teach new pickups on the fly. He might be a coordinator of the future for another team because he knows the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.