This isn't disputable: The Dallas Cowboys need to replace Sean Lee at middle linebacker. Lee, of course, is out for the entire 2014 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee.
According to Bruce Carter himself, he won't be moving into that spot.
"From what I see, I think they're going to keep me at my same position," Carter said, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "I guess they're just going to try guys and work them in and out and just see who fits best."
And rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens admits he isn't ready to fill those shoes. Here's what he said when asked if he's prepared to do so, according to Rowan Kavner at DallasCowboys.com:
Honestly, right now, no. But I will get there. It’s going to take time. I’ve still got to get everything down. If we had a game tomorrow, no, but it’s a good thing we don’t. I have time to get better.
Despite that, according to Archer, early indications were that the Cowboys were going to explore in-house options first. But now we're hearing of a potential two-man platoon, which, according to ESPN's Ed Werder, could involve Brian Urlacher and/or Jonathan Vilma.
Now, a team source has apparently told Werder that the interest level is low, but the football world is full of lies and things change quickly regardless.
To be clear, even Urlacher and Vilma together, at the ages of 36 and 32, respectively, would act as, at best, a marginal upgrade over Carter or Hitchens or anyone else currently on the roster.
|Cowboys: Projected middle linebacker depth chart|
|Linebacker||Career starts||Career snaps||Career tackles|
|1. DeVonte Holloman||2||214||26|
|2. Anthony Hitchens||0||0||0|
|3. Orie Lemon||0||31||5|
|4. Will Smith||0||0||0|
|5. Keith Smith||0||0||0|
|Pro Football Focus|
But what do the Cowboys have to lose?
Urlacher hasn't played in a year and was wearing down quickly before that. His knees are in bad shape, and in 2012 he was graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the second-worst qualifying run-defender at the inside linebacker position.
Vilma is four years younger but played only 12 snaps last year and started only 10 games the year before that. When he was last remotely healthy in 2011, he was graded by PFF as the third-worst inside linebacker in football.
In this game, once you've lost it, it's tough to get back.
But the Cowboys freed up $5.5 million in cap space with Miles Austin coming off the books this week. That gives them $10 million in total, according to Archer, which is more than enough to sign both veterans to incentive-laden one-year trial deals while still signing their rookies and carrying some cash over.
The added benefit is that guys like Carter, Hitchens and second-year man DeVonte Holloman can learn a hell of a lot from a future Hall of Famer like Urlacher and a three-time Pro Bowler like Vilma. They could ease that transition as the torch is passed to youngsters who may have to be considered long-term replacements if Lee can't find a way to stay healthy.
I know the Cowboys have a reputation for bringing in big-name veterans, and I know that has often backfired, but this is different. Urlacher is a high-character guy who would only help boost an impressionable locker room. Vilma's reputation arguably took a hit with the bounty scandal, but he isn't considered to be a liability off the field.
And the key to keeping both guys fresh could be that platoon, which to me is the more intriguing aspect of Werder's tweet.
Ideally, you'd have one linebacker who excels in coverage and another who is better against the run. That way, they'd complement each other. That's not exactly the case here, but Vilma has that aggressive nature and Urlacher is rangier with hardcore tackling ability. The two could spell each other and last an entire season.
The good outweighs the bad in this scenario, especially since whatever the Cowboys get from the middle linebacker in that Tampa 2 defense is somewhat of a bonus.
As Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News points out, that position doesn't need to be filled by a star within that system. When Monte Kiffin made it famous with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the early part of the 21st century, Hardy Nickerson, Jamie Duncan, Shelton Quarles and Barrett Ruud were his men in the middle. Not exactly a group worthy of Canton.
There's no rush. Last year, the Cowboys waited until September to bring in Brian Waters. And it doesn't appear as though anybody is chasing these vets on the open market. Vilma's representatives reached out to the Miami Dolphins way back in March, according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, but the Phins weren't interested.
So let this play out a little. Let Hitchens and Holloman battle for the spot and get a complete sample of what you're working with now that Lee is gone. That sort of pressure, combined with plenty of first-team practice reps, could have a tremendous impact on the evolution of these guys as players.
But keep tabs on Urlacher and Vilma, and if they're in decent shape and willing to contribute in the fall, swing the bat. It really couldn't hurt at this point.
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