Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett maintains his vagueness in regards to Sean Lee’s injury, even Monday giving the watered-down diagnosis of “a serious knee injury” and refusing to get into the “specifics” of his middle linebacker’s situation.
No matter the extent of Garrett’s denial, though, we do know that a plan is in place to replace Lee in his crucial defensive position.
Names like Brian Urlacher and Jonathan Vilma have been associated to the vacancy on the Dallas defense, but the Cowboys will look internally before they search the free agent pool, according to their head coach.
“We have 90 guys on our roster and we’re excited about them. We want to give those guys every opportunity,” Garrett said. “We want to see who on our football team rises to the occasion.”
He said the team is always evaluating what he called the “landscape” of players - including free agents - but that he likes the competition on the defense that is currently in its second week of OTAs at Valley Ranch.
It’s still early, and having options is a positive for the Cowboys. But the crux of the situation is that behind Lee, the options are thin on experience at the middle linebacker spot.
Justin Durant did work at the middle, or Mike, linebacker spot in Monday’s workouts. The coaching staff is attracted to the fact that Durant has experience at both a base linebacker spot and in nickel situations.
“He’s an experienced linebacker who’s played in this scheme,” Garrett said. “He’s played at different spots in this scheme.”
Injuries limited Durant to just ten games and six starts in 2013, his first year with the Cowboys. With a healthy Durant and other additions made through the draft, what was an injury-depleted defense last season is ahead of where it was a year ago.
“We feel like we have more guys to start with than we did last year at this time, and we feel good about that,” Garrett said.
Three-year veteran Bruce Carter joined the Cowboys linebacking corps with high expectations and has seen time at multiple linebacker positions in his tenure with Dallas. That experience includes 10 games at middle linebacker in place of Lee in 2012 under Rob Ryan. New defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, however, plans to keep Carter at the weak side, or Will, position.
“I think when you start moving a guy around, that’s when you really slow a man’s progress,” Marinelli said. “[Carter] is going to get into that Will backer position and really learn it, and do the same things every day.”
“He’s one of the best athletes we have on our football team,” Garrett said. “What we need to do is get Bruce settled into playing a spot and let him use athletic ability to go play.”
Carter played quarterback, safety and running back in high school before moving to linebacker in college at North Carolina.
Rookie Anthony Hitchens, who is expected to play in the middle after playing primarily on the weak side at Iowa, was drafted (far too early) to be part of the contingency plan in the event that Lee missed time this season.
Hitchens said some of the calls are different and that it will take time for him to adjust to the new position.
“If I got it in one day that would be awesome, but realistically that’s not going to happen,” he said. “I’ve got to keep trying to get better in the classroom and the playbook, learning from the older guys that are showing us the ropes right now.”
So the idea of a free agent acquisition is on the back burner for now at Valley Ranch, and the search for the three best linebackers continues within the current roster of players.
Strength in numbers, as they say.