ARLINGTON, Texas – The impact of Sean Lee’s knee injury was seen on the Cowboys’ practice field the next day: rookie Anthony Hitchens practiced with the first-team defense at middle linebacker, Lee’s position.
"I had all the first team [snaps]," Hitchens said Wednesday during a team charity event. "Me and Bruce [Carter] with the ones."
Carter, the starter at weakside linebacker, is on the list of possible replacements for Lee, who injured his left knee Tuesday during the first day of OTAs.
Head coach Jason Garrett would not confirm Lee’s diagnosis, although it’s been widely reported that Lee has an ACL tear that will cause him to miss the 2014 season.
But he did say that the search for Lee’s replacement, if needed, will start internally.
"We drafted a couple of linebackers, we signed some linebackers in the offseason," Garrett said. "We’re excited about letting the guys on our roster get in there and compete and see what they have. We always want to be able to look at the entire landscape that’s available to us, but we’ve felt like we’ve added some resources to our team at that position."
The other linebacker the Cowboys drafted was Will Smith, a seventh round pick from Texas Tech whom the Cowboys see as an outside linebacker.
Hitchens, drafted in the fourth round out of Iowa, was also an outside linebacker in college. However, the Cowboys drafted him with the idea that he could serve as Lee’s backup.
Now, he’s in line to be the starter, but he has a lot of work to do.
"The coaches tell me I have the ability to play, so it’s just studying the playbook and trying to know all my alignments," Hitchens said.
Fortunately for Hitchens, he has a very good teacher in Lee who was at the Cowboys’ training facility Wednesday.
"I talked to him earlier. He just helped me out on a couple of Cover 2s that we ran today in practice," Hitchens said. "It means a lot to me being a younger guy. If I ever have any questions, I run right to him."
The Cowboys also have some veteran options who saw time at middle linebacker last season when hamstring and neck injuries caused Lee to miss five games.
"DeVonte Holloman played some mike (middle) linebacker for us last year," Garrett said. "We will see him working in that spot. Justin Durant has played different spots for us, he’s played different spots in his career.
"But again we want to evaluate what Sean’s situation is first, then we’ll give some other guys an opportunity to get in there and show us what they can do."
Carter played inside linebacker when the Cowboys were a 3-4 team. He struggled last year as an outside linebacker when the switch was made to a 4-3, but for now it doesn’t look like he will move back inside.
"From what I see, I think they’re just going to keep me at my same position," Carter said. "I guess they’re just going to try guys and work them in and out, just see who fits best."
The Cowboys have players who can play middle linebacker, but not anyone who brings Lee’s presence onto the field.
"He’s a true leader, man," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "He’s a guy that knows the playbook, knows the opposing teams. He can get guys going. It’s just his attitude out there. We have to come together as 11 players now and match the intensity that he brought to the table."
Finding a way to replace Lee will likely be a long process. For now, the players are still dealing with the shock of the injury.
"I feel bad for him. If anybody does, it’s me," Carter said. "We’ve worked out hard, especially in the offseason, me and him just grinding to get this team where we want to be, especially our defense. Just to see him take that loss, it was just heartbreaking."