Life Without Sean Lee. The Cowboys Consider Options in the Middle.

Sean Lee's injury blindsides the Cowboys

Sean Lee’s injury blindsides the Cowboys

When Jerry Jones drafted two LBs recently, he was trying to prepare for the next time Sean Lee went out with an injury which occurs every season. It sure didn’t take long this time as Lee suffered a season ending knee injury during their very first OTA.

It has been pointed out that Lee has never played a complete season for Dallas and that Dallas (believe it nor not) has a winning record (9-7) when playing without Sean Lee. That’s encouraging I suppose but I’m convinced this defense is better with Lee out there than without him out there. “When healthy” are words that often come up when talking about Sean Lee because when healthy, it would be difficult to find a better LB in the NFL than Sean Lee.

Another positive in a situation that doesn’t offer many of them, is that with this happening in the month of May, there is time to make other arrangements on defense. Not like they play the 49ers next week. So how can this defense improve now without it’s top tackler and interceptor? A look at the options and possibilities at MLB without Lee.

Free agency/trade:
The free agency market is cold at this point and doesn’t offer much. All indications have been that the Cowboys are not looking to bring in a player from the outside to replace Lee. Most of what is out there comes with a past of injury issues and risks of more injuries. The Cowboys will look at their current roster to come up with a MLB and I think that may be best.

DeVonte Holloman– Right away the Cowboys are taking a look at the LB they drafted last year. Holloman struggled though a neck injury last season but played in 9 games collecting 26 tackles with 2 sacks. His best game was in the final game with the Eagles when he recorded those two sacks. That strong finish left coaches and fans encouraged that Holloman can compete for playing time at LB in 2014 but with Lee injured, his opportunity to play is here.

Holloman played strong safety in college at South Carolina and also the “Spur” safety/LB hybrid position in 2012. With that secondary experience, he displays better coverage skills than LBs typically do. In the Cowboys Tampa 2, the MLB needs to drop back in the middle of the field and be able to step into passing lanes to defend the pass. Holloman should be able to provide this for the defense right away.

Last season Holloman saw action at all three LB positions including MLB. It think he is capable of playing well at the MLB spot but he does have some developing to do. Holloman should be an asset in pass defense and he showed in that last Eagles game of 2013, that he has a knack for blitzing and sacking the QB.

Bruce Carter-At this point Carter doesn’t appear to be an option as he said,
“From what I see, I think they’re going to keep me at my same position,” Carter said. “I guess they’re just going to try guys and work them in and out and just see who fits best.”

It’s early in this process and my advice would be keep all your options open. Carter wasn’t great at Will last season and he may be more help in the middle than they realize. In Rob Ryan’s defense Carter had to play the middle when Lee was out with an injury, and he performed well actually. Ryan offered this high praise in 2012 while Carter was filling in for Lee,
“I never thought he’d have the ascension that Sean Lee did,” Ryan said. “But he has. He has. That’s the bottom line. This guy’s become a hell of a football player right in front of our eyes this season. I wouldn’t have predicted that.”

I think Carter should get a look at playing the middle.

How about the rookies?

Anthony Hitchens– Jerry drafted Hitchens in the 4th round and pretty much described the pick as an insurance policy for the often injured Sean Lee but he couldn’t have expected Lee to go out this soon. In my draft analysis I described this pick as a reach since Dallas took Hitchens much sooner than his player ranking. As far as player comparison goes, I compared the hard hitting compact Hitchens to former Steeler LB James Harrison.

Cowboy fans will enjoy watching Hitchens physical style of play as he tends to blow up people on the football field. Have to like his physical play but there is concern that he will not be able to offer a lot in pass coverage initially at least.

Cowboys scout/analyst Bryan Broaddus pointed out that Hitchens may have some developing in this important aspect of his game.
“What you get from Hitchens is the physical side of the game more than the athlete. Where he is going to have to make the most improvement in his game will be in the coverage aspect of the position. In this scheme, if you struggle to know where you fit in your zone drops, there are going to be issues.”

The rookie Hitchens can help them in the middle but realistically, he has developing to do in the pass defense.

Will Smith-The Texas Tech rookie was drafted in the 7th round and while I have not heard his name come up at all as a Lee replacement in the middle, I think eventually the coaches may realize they have a pretty good prospect here with the speed and athleticism to play MLB.

At Texas Tech, Smith played weakside LB and that may be his best position in the NFL but I think it makes sense to take a look at him for the middle since the spot is open and he makes lots of tackles. He led the Big 12 in solo tackles (86) last season and on video he covers well in the secondary. I like the way he pursues the football and his athletic ability.

Final Take:
I think the middle LB that replaces Lee is already on their roster. Holloman offers skills in pass coverage that really could help a defense that struggled against the pass last season. My concern is how will he hold up to the physical play in the middle every down?

The rookie Hitchens presents a tough run defender in the middle to help stuff the run but it may take time for him to learn the assignments in the pass coverage. I actually like the idea of playing Hitchens on run plays and get Holloman on the field in pass situations. A shared two headed approach to MLB.

Carter perhaps a long shot to play in the middle at this point, has experience playing the middle and could be an option considered later due to more injuries at the position. Don’t dismiss this as an option.

Will Smith is a rookie to keep an eye on in preseason games. If he can get to the ball at the NFL level like he did against Texas and in the Holiday Bowl last year, the Cowboy coaches will be looking for a way to get Smith on the field. Smith may turn out to be a better option at MLB than perhaps they realize yet.