Before the 2014 season started for the Dallas Cowboys there were questions galore, and arguably one of the biggest questions about this team was how the linebackers would perform.
That was the question before Sean Lee got hurt.
After he was injured and put on the shelf for the entire 2014 season, the linebackers on this team were dubbed as one of the weakest positions on the defense and would no doubt fail miserably during the 2014 season.
The team had a very inconsistent and yet talented Bruce Carter, an underrated Justin Durant, and an inexperienced Kyle Wilber; a rookie in Anthony Hitchens – who some thought was overvalued being selected in the 4th round of the 2014 draft – and of course, Rolando McClain, who the team acquired by bringing him out of retirement for the second time.
Fast-forward through the season and the playoffs, and the unit that was supposed to be one of the weakest positions on the team ended up one of the strongest.
The team got an unexpected boost from Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain showed flashes of why he was a top draft pick by the Raiders just a few years ago. Bruce Carter had his best season as a pro and led all linebackers in interceptions with five, finishing in the league’s top ten.
The linebacker unit didn’t go through the season without its ups and downs or injuries. Rolando McClain played through injuries most of the season and missed some games as well. His injuries caused a steep decline in his production as the season wore on. Bruce Carter missed three games and still had a few that left fans scratching their heads. Justin Durant – who Rod Marinelli said was the league’s best kept secret – was hurt and lost for the season in week 6.
Of the linebackers mentioned, only Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, and Kyle Wilber remain under contract with any significant playing time. When you have a really good season like the Cowboys did in 2014, one of the main priorities is to try to resign some of the players whose contracts have run out.
Many factors must be considered before decisions are made about some of those players. Here are some things the Cowboys’ front office could be considering:
- How will the new contract mesh with the salary cap
- Has he played well enough and consistently enough to earn a new contract
- Injury history
- Father time creeps up on us all, but it’s a whole lot faster in the NFL
- Depth – Who’s playing behind them? Can player A be replaced by player B if player A is let go. Is player A stunting the growth of those behind him? (AKA Progress stopper)
Those are just some of the questions which could be brought up if the team is thinking about negotiating. And perhaps those will be especially relevant to the front office when they look at free agents Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter and Justin Durant.
Let’s do our own evaluations with our Sign ‘Em or Let ‘Em Walk list.
He’s the most controversial of the three, so let’s start with him.
We know some of his past – that he’s retired twice already and that he’s had run ins with the law. We know he sat out the entire 2013 season. The one thing we didn’t know when he was brought to Dallas was which Rolando the Cowboys were going to get. The Rolando that showed greatness his first couple of years in the league, or the Rolando that kept everyone guessing what his next move would be?
McClain flashed his abilities during preseason. He was brought along slowly, but as each week passed you could see he was regaining that stud form he had while with the Raiders.
McClain became an instant leader on this defense, vocally and leading by his play. He was lining people up in their proper positions by week one, and by week two he brought the heat on his tackling. His tackling wasn’t just hard-hitting; it was precision technique violently executed. He ended the season with 81 combined tackles, which was good for second on the team.
When McClain was in the game, other teams struggled to get a consistent running game going. He also played well against the pass as he was able to pick off a couple of throws in 2014.
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One interception – in Tennessee – was one of the most athletic catches you might ever see by a man of his size.
And his other interception came when he sealed the deal in Seattle late in the 4th quarter.
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He isn’t but 25 years old, so he has room for improvement and coaches as well as other players have said he’s a student of the game.
Let Him Walk
He made it an entire season with no off-the-field problems, but he does have a past of it happening. Remember that he’s still young, so it isn’t out of the way to think there’s a chance something else could happen.
He stayed injured almost the entire season. He played through those injuries – for the most part – but those injuries gradually started slowing his level of play down.
What kind of contract is he going to demand? He’s a young, talented middle linebacker who could get the big bucks if he chose to. And if the ‘Boys let him walk, I believe he gets the contract he wants.
Overall Feeling on Rolando McClain
I think the team wants him back, and I think that he wants to come back. McClain said in training camp that there wasn’t but two teams he was going to come out of retirement for, and one of them is the Dallas Cowboys.
He knows what people around the league think of him. So when owner Jerry Jones called him to ask if he would play, I believe that went a long way with him. I feel he will get resigned to a “team friendly” deal; something along the lines of what left tackle Tyron Smith signed prior to training camp. Maybe not the same numbers, but with a similar structure.
Bruce is possibly the most athletically gifted linebacker on the team. That’s never been an issue. The issue was, which Bruce Carter are you going to get?
I wrote that piece last off-season trying to pinpoint the cause of some of his troubles. One of his biggest issues was taking two seasons to get accustomed to a new defense. Another was, he played so many positions in college that I felt he never had a chance to hone in on his craft at any one position.
There could be something to the idea that he needs a couple of years in a defense before everything starts to click. Not everyone learns the same way and I believe people forget that when it comes to football players.
Bruce was finally the playmaker Jerry Jones & Company had envisioned when he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He led all linebackers with five interceptions, which was also good enough for a top 10 spot in the league.
Bruce found a home at strong side linebacker in this defense and for the most part, it was the best he’s looked since he came into the league. He was 6th on the team with 68 combined tackles to go along with his team-high 5 interceptions in 13 games.
He’s a young, athletic linebacker that can do it all on defense and special teams, and he can be the total package when all goes right for him.
Let Him Walk
Bruce just so happens to have his best season during a contract season – not the first time a player has done it, but it can bring up questions about his character.
Bruce has been hurt each year he’s been in the league and has never played 16 games. So that has to be taken into consideration on a couple of different levels, and goes along with him learning two different defensive schemes in his first couple of seasons. Not being able to stay healthy can play a big part in learning and his ability to play.
What kind of contract is he going to want, and does he want to be in Dallas? He’s said on more than one occasion that he lost his love for the game in the past, and that was a big part of how he prepared and how he played.
Overall Feeling on Bruce Carter
I think the team would love to have Bruce Carter back. This linebacker unit could be on the verge of something special and the Cowboys would love for him to stay and be part of that. But, I think the price is going to be too high for their liking. Bruce will hit free agency and someone will pay him big money.
Before training camp started, there were some in the football world who weren’t so sure Durant would even make this team. That all changed the second Sean Lee went down.
Before the team traded for Rolando McClain, Durant was going to be the starting middle linebacker and he was proving every day that he was very capable of doing that. When McClain came in, Durant showed he was man enough for the job and that it didn’t matter if McClain was here for that job or not. Durant is known as a serviceable player but nothing to get too excited about. Over the course of training camp, the preseason, and the first month of the season, he changed the minds of everyone outside the organization.
In 6 games played, Justin Durant totaled 49 tackles. At that pace he would have easily led the team in tackles by the end of the year. I felt Durant was on his way to a Pro Bowl bid; that’s how well he was playing. He was always around the ball and in on gang tackles. Durant had a motor that wouldn’t stop.
He became a veteran leader on this team, which was badly needed considering the Cowboys have one of the youngest teams in the National Football League.
Being the eldest linebacker, it is very possible the team would resign him to a “team friendly” deal, and that’s for a couple of reasons. One is his age, and two is his injury history.
Let Him Walk
Will resigning Durant stunt the growth of rising linebacker Anthony Hitchens? If Durant is back, and the team resigns McClain, who’s going to sit? Sean Lee? I don’t think so! Second year stud Anthony Hitchens? I highly doubt it, not with the way that rookie played last season.
Durant is 30, and for most players 30 seems to be the age where people expect a decline, and it doesn’t help when you’re 30 and haven’t been able to play a full season since signing with the club.
Overall Feeling on Justin Durant
I feel the team will re-sign Durant. His leadership and play on the field is something the team can’t afford to let go.
If Durant was a couple of years younger, I’m not so sure Jerry & Co. could afford it. But, I think his injury history and his age play in the Cowboys’ favor.
So here are my predictions.
McClain and Durant will return to join fellow linebackers Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, and Kyle Wilber in 2015. I think Bruce Carter played his last down for the Cowboys in 2014.