Cowboys shift focus to finding help at middle linebacker

Posted Tuesday, Jun. 03, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett refuses to acknowledge the finality of the knee injury to middle linebacker Sean Lee.

Though sources — and even Lee — have acknowledged that he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and is facing season-ending surgery after going down in practice last week, Garrett remains coy.

“I don’t want to get into the specifics,” Garrett said Monday following practice. “He had a serious knee injury. He is in the process of rehabbing right now. We are coming up with a plan for him going forward.”

Could Lee have surgery and return before the end of the season?

It’s possible, but unlikely — given the six-to-eight month recovery process and Lee’s injury history.

The Cowboys have no reason to make a decision on Lee now, and their focus is on finding a replacement.

And while there have been a number of Internet reports regarding the team possibly looking at future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher, 36, who played under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Chicago, the Cowboys have all but ruled that out.

The Cowboys have no interest in kicking the tires on Urlacher, according to a source. He did not play last season after he was released by Chicago, but the 13-year veteran has not officially retired.

Garrett said the Cowboys plan on exhausting their options inside the locker room before searching the free-agent market.

“We drafted a couple of linebackers,” Garrett said. “We feel like we have more guys to start with than we had last year at this time. We want to be sure those guys get an opportunity to show us what they can do and see who rises to the top.”

Rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens got the first crack at middle linebacker when Lee went down last week. But Monday it was eight-year veteran Justin Durant who trotted out first with the starting unit at middle linebacker. It was his first day at practice after sitting last week with a hamstring injury.

“Coach called on me to go and so I went,” Durant said. “Whenever they tell me to go, I go.

“We have a depth chart when we come in and my name was up there today for the Mike. I’m comfortable. We all cross train in all the meetings to step in just in case something like this happens. I have been studying it.”

Durant is an intriguing option for the Cowboys because he is the most experienced linebacker on the team and has some history at the position and in this scheme under Marinelli.

“We’re going to have a chance to take a look at him there,” Marinelli said. “He’s a heck of a veteran. He played there some last year.”

Still, it’s another change for Durant, who came to the Cowboys as a free agent last year to start at strongside linebacker. He missed 10 games because of groin and hamstring injuries. He was moved to the weakside spot where he was expected to compete with Bruce Carter for the starting role.

When Lee went down, Garrett said Durant was the best option to compete with Hitchens and second-year man DeVonte Holloman in the middle.

“He is an experienced linebacker who has played in this scheme,” Garrett said. “He has played different spots in this scheme. If you look at his tape from last year, we liked what we saw from Durant.

“One of the issues with him is that he was banged up a little bit. But when you got back to what his reel looked like, just watch the Justin Durant plays, we feel pretty good about it. He runs to the football. He made a lot of plays for us. We’ve got to keep him healthy.”

Durant has more starts (74) than all of the other linebackers on the team combined. So whether he wins the starting job or not, the Cowboys are counting on him to help replace Lee as a leader in the locker room.

“It’s another stop in my career. I have never been the old guy in the room who the young guys look to ask questions,” Durant said. “I will just try to help them out as much as I can. I had guys that helped me out when I was young to help me make eight years. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be good. It’s going to be fun.”

The insertion of Durant with the first team was just another NFL eye-opener for Hitchens.

He is still trying to make the adjustment from weakside linebacker in college at Iowa to middle linebacker with the Cowboys.

“I don’t control the depth charts. I’m just worrying about the things that I can control and trying to get better,” Hitchens said. “[Durant] knows a lot. I’m leaning on him. He’s a smart guy and I’m just trying to learn from him.”

Hitchens got some good news Monday when he officially signed his four-year rookie contract.

“It means a lot to sign that first deal,” Hitchens said. “You’ve worked your whole life for something like this and it just means a lot to sign it, but that’s just a starting point. I’m really just trying to get better every day and try to get another deal.”

Clarence E. Hill Jr. 817-390-7760 Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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