Cowboys' linebacker need grows after Bruce Carter leaves

IRVING, Texas -- For the second time in a day, the Dallas Cowboys have lost a linebacker to free agency with Bruce Carter signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

On Tuesday, the Cowboys lost Justin Durant to the Atlanta Falcons on a three-year, $10.8 million deal with a $3 million signing bonus. On Wednesday, Carter received a four-year deal worth $20.5 million.

All along the Cowboys felt Carter would get a deal that would pay him more than they wanted to pay, even after Durant’s departure.

Only one of their free-agent linebackers remains on the open market: Rolando McClain. According to sources, he is facing a four-game fine for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and is one more incident away from a four-game suspension, which should hamper his bargaining position.

The Cowboys have been in discussions with McClain’s agent but -- like everything in free agency -- will not overpay. They weren’t going to pay Durant an average of $3.6 million annually when he missed as many games (16) as he played (16) in two years, and they were not going to pay Carter $5 million a year after so many inconsistencies in his four-year run.

Coming to a price on McClain’s contract was difficult before news of the fine. When he played, he was effective. He was credited with 108 tackles by the coaches to go with one sack, nine tackles for loss, five quarterback pressures, two interceptions, five pass deflections and a forced fumble.

But he was hampered throughout training camp with minor injuries. He played through knee and shoulder injuries during the season. He was knocked out of the two playoff games because of concussions.

The loss of Carter puts more of a need at linebacker, but that doesn’t mean the Cowboys will automatically raise their price for McClain.

They can play Sean Lee at middle linebacker, flanked by Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber/Keith Rivers at outside linebacker. What they lack is depth, especially with Lee coming off a torn ACL.

If McClain returns, they can move Lee to the weak-side spot and have Hitchens play the strong side.

Even if McClain returns, they would need more linebacker help because he is no guarantee to play 16 games.