For all the talk about DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant becoming free agents in March, the Dallas Cowboys have similar issues in their linebacker corps.
Rolando McClain, arguably the defense’s best player when healthy, is set to hit the open market. So is Bruce Carter, who delivered big plays at critical times late in the season.
Then there is Justin Durant, named a defensive captain at the beginning of the year, whose season was cut short when he tore his right biceps in late October.
It’s unlikely that all three will return, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see two of them back. McClain is held in high regard by the Cowboys, bringing a much-needed physical presence to the defense. Durant might come at a lower price tag given his injury history.
Carter, meanwhile, seems the most likely to bolt in free agency, although that’s not a given.
“That’s an area we have to address and get our hands around,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “There’s a lot of moving parts on all those guys. We’ll sit down with our coaching staff and our scouting staff and make good decisions.”
The luxury the Cowboys have when it comes to linebackers is that Sean Lee returns after missing a year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And Anthony Hitchens, a fourth-round pick in last year’s draft, exceeded expectations and showed he’s capable of starting in the NFL.
But, outside of those two, plenty of questions remain. The No. 1 issue hinges on what to do with McClain.
The 25-year-old resurrected his career after flaming out as a top-10 pick with the Oakland Raiders and retiring twice. McClain finished with the second-most tackles on the team, despite missing three regular-season games with injuries.
McClain had a minimal impact in the playoffs, leaving each game with concussion-like symptoms in the first half.
But, according to a source, McClain is doing well early this off-season. His concussion-like symptoms don’t appear to be an issue at this point. McClain also had his bothersome right knee examined by famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews in Alabama recently.
Andrews saw no structural damage on McClain’s knee that required surgery, the source said, saying it was common “wear and tear.”
That’s a good sign for McClain and the Cowboys, should they be able to reach a deal.
Owner Jerry Jones said this week at the Senior Bowl that he has no concerns about the injuries McClain dealt with throughout the season.
“I look at anything that he dealt with injury-wise as a part of the rehabbing of getting back in the groove in the NFL,” Jerry Jones said. “I don’t mean to minimize what he played with, but still all of that has a chance to be better as he goes along and plays.
“Just a question of having to adjust and being out [of football] 18 months.”
If the Cowboys are able to sign McClain, that would seem to make Carter expendable.
Carter, 26, has seen his playing time fluctuate throughout his four years with the Cowboys. Coaches love his athleticism and ability, but he’s also been prone to lapses in his play.
Still, it’s hard to overlook Carter’s playmaking skills.
As for Durant, the Cowboys like his veteran presence, and he is productive when healthy. He’s played in only 16 of 32 regular-season games, however, since joining the Cowboys in 2013.
There are similar injury concerns when it comes to Lee, as well, so building depth at linebacker is important.
“I would say that most of our linebackers’ arrows are up as far as how they played,” Jerry Jones said. “We have to sit down and work that through as far as what we’ll do contractually there.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760