The starting middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys will have some big shoes to fill next season, though they won’t exactly be able to adequately fill the shoes of Sean Lee. Nobody underrates Lee’s ability as a player, and sometimes you start to wonder if we overstate the importance of a starting MLB when talking about what Lee means to the Cowboys defense. He’s clearly the team’s best defensive player, but the Cowboys could soften the blow of losing him with the right committee at MLB in place.
The toughest part about losing someone like Lee is that you have to replace his ability to make a big impact in every facet of the game, because he is one of the league’s most well-rounded players; he can dominate against the run, cover, and even blitz when asked to. The Cowboys don’t have a tailor-made backup who can do all of those three things, but it’s possible that they can get that kind of well-rounded play by specializing two players (a two-down LB with a coverage linebacker coming in on third downs).
Veteran Justin Durant is the best healthy linebacker on the Cowboys roster right now, and he makes the most sense to deploy as a starter. According to Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas, the Cowboys like what Durant brings to the table against the run, but they are “unsure” if he has sufficient coverage skills. Durant is usually better as a 3-4 inside linebacker, because 4-3 MLBs must do more in coverage than linebackers on the inside in a 3-4 scheme.
When he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars with Daryl Smith, he formed an excellent partnership and was a monster in run defense, which earned him a nice role on the Detroit Lions. Durant has improved his coverage skills throughout his career, and he’s still in his prime at 28. In 2012, Durant finished with 103 tackles for the Lions, and he wasn’t a true liability in coverage while also providing some strong run defense. His ability to stuff running plays downhill can’t be questioned, but it’s ideal for the Cowboys to take him off in passing situations.
So who can do that? The funny thing about the Rolando McClain trade is that it would work out perfectly for the Cowboys if he can prove to be a strong coverage linebacker. Although he was a first-round bust with the Oakland Raiders and missed far too many tackles, he showed strong instincts and ball skills in coverage. If he can show those flashes again, then a platoon of Durant and McClain could be the answer for the Cowboys.
DeVonte Holloman could also get some looks from the Cowboys, but he played very poorly last year and lacks experience. That said, a lack of experience also means that he has some upside, and Holloman is just 23. A second-year pro, Holloman is also known as a coverage linebacker, and he’s honestly a safer option than McClain, given how McClain’s career is essentially on life support.
Aside from McClain, the most intriguing option on the Cowboys roster is rookie Anthony Hitchens, but his playing style is much more similar to Durant’s than Holloman’s. He is known more for his play against the run than his play against the pass, as he racked up tackles at Iowa. I’m not particularly high on him as a player, but he deserves to receive some looks as a rookie and can play as a WILL or MIKE when needed.
Durant is the only known commodity at middle linebacker on the Cowboys roster, so they have to start him initially and work from there. I think he’ll prove to be a quality starter at the heart of their defense, and he won’t embarrass himself in coverage. Any concerns the Cowboys have about his coverage ability isn’t unfounded, so I think they will let Holloman and McClain have a training camp battle for the third-down MLB gig. Hitchens is a name to keep in mind due to his run defense and solid play in college, but I prefer Durant to an unproven rookie who most likely won’t be as good.