For the second consecutive season, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain will serve a suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse. In 2015, Dallas only had to survive without McClain for a quarter of the season, but given that McClain is facing a 10-game ban for 2016, the Cowboys will need to more seriously consider how they’re going to make up for the loss of their middle linebacker.
We’ve examined how Dallas might go about finding a replacement for McClain, looking at players already on the Cowboys’ roster, free agents sitting on the open market, and veterans who could be on the roster bubble with their respective clubs. Let’s dive in…
The primary name being floated to replace McClain in the middle is third-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens, whom the Cowboys selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft. Thing is, Hitchens was already a starter — he played on the inside in McClain’s absence last year, and then moved to the outside, ultimately seeing action on about half of Dallas’ defensive snaps. So if Hitchens is being counted on to man the middle full-time, including in sub packages, the Cowboys would need to find a replacement at strong-side linebacker, meaning Kyle Wilber and/or Andrew Gachkar could see meaningful snaps after spending most of their respective careers as special teams players.
Gachkar, meanwhile, is another option to fill in at middle linebacker, and he has experience at the position. If chosen, Gachkar would likely be a two-down player, as Pro Football Focus’ grades have shown him to be effective against the run but a liability in pass coverage. The 27-year-old has never been a major defensive contributor — he was forced to step into the starting lineup when the Chargers suffered a variety of injuries at the linebacker position in 2014, but even then, he only played on 36.5% of San Diego’s defensive snaps.
The “wild card” in this race is second-year player Mark Nzeocha, according to Bryan Broaddus of the Cowboys’ website. A seventh-round pick in last year’s draft, Nzeocha only appeared in two games during his rookie season, managing 14 snaps, all of which came on special teams. Extremely athletic, Nzeocha was all over the field at Wyoming, playing safety and all three linebacker positions. His learning curve might be steep, but he clearly has all the physical tools to play the position.
A source tells PFR that the Cowboys are, for the most part, satisfied with the current state of their linebacker room, and are looking forward to have their young players compete for playing time while McClain is suspended. Dallas, says the source, hasn’t shown a lot of interest in scouring the free agent market for substitutes, so one of Hitchens, Gachkar, or Nzeocha might be the favorite to earn significant snaps this fall.
Donald Butler — After selecting Denzel Perryman in 2015 and Joshua Perry in this year’s draft, the Chargers parted ways with Butler, who had spent the past five seasons with the club. At age-27, Butler is the youngest free agent option on this list, but he’s coming off the worst season of his career, having posted just 40 tackles during the 2016 campaign. Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune accused Butler of “losing interest” after receiving a massive extension prior to the 2014 season, so perhaps some other clubs have made that same assessment.
Justin Durant — Durant started 12 games for the Falcons last year, but prior to his time in Atlanta he spent two seasons with the Cowboys, so at the very least he’d offer some familiarity with Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli‘s playbook. Versatility is another point in Durant’s favor, as he played mostly inside linebacker with Atlanta and Detroit, roamed the middle during his Jacksonville tenure, and moved between both positions with the Cowboys.
A.J. Hawk — The Bengals signed Hawk to a two-year deal before the 2015 campaign, but despite injuries limiting fellow linebacker Vontaze Burfict to just 10 games, Hawk rarely saw the field, playing on roughly a quarter of Cincinnati’s defensive snaps. Hawk recently told Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer that although he’s aware a club might not express interest until late in camp (or perhaps after the season begins), he’s staying in shape in the hopes of receiving a phone call.
David Hawthorne — Like Durant, Hawthorne offers positional versatility, having seen action at both inside and outside linebacker. In 2015, Hawthorne was shifted to the weak side in favor of rookie Stephone Anthony, but was then benched, declared inactive, and ultimately released after an unproductive season. Still, he’s got 83 career starts under his belt, and would presumably feel comfortable in the middle of the Dallas defense.
Keep reading for more external options that could be on the Cowboys’ radar…