The Cowboys: Contributions, Contracts and The Cap — Linebackers

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee

Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys had an on-paper plan at linebacker based on the idea that 66 percent of their starting group was on the cusp of stardom.

Instead, Sean Lee spent 2013 on the cusp of injury and Bruce Carter spent to 2013 on the cusp of confusion.

Dallas remains convinced Lee, the starting linebacker who when healthy did appear to be thriving as a playmaker in the 4-3, is an elite player. But even Lee himself concedes that his future comes with an "if"; he once again struggled with injuries, this time a hamstring injury and then a neck injury billed as a "ligament ailment" but in truth, according to FOX Sports Southwest sources, a neurological problem with a nerve compressed against his spine. That last problem caused Lee to miss the final three games of the year And it causes Dallas to look prescient when it extended Lee’s contract in a way that takes into account his injury woes.

Lee signed a six-year extension last season. It can be worth $51 million – but only if he plays 80 percent of the team’s snaps. If he fails to do that, he loses between $1.5 million to $2 million a year over the length of the contract.

And then there is the mystery of Carter -€“ and the dilemma regarding his financial future. Carter, like Lee a dynamic talent with youth on his side (Carter is 25, Lee is 27), was supposed to be ideal as a weakside playmaker relying on horizontal speed to excel in this defense. Carter – maybe thinking too much -€“ played as if he was lost in this scheme. He was so poor (despite his 100 tackles) that while once upon a time the organization viewed him as a bookend with Lee and as a contract-extension-worthy player ranking only behind Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith, there are now more questions than answers regarding Carter.

Carter is in the final year of his rookie deal, due $1.54 million. Again, the original plan: Extend during this upcoming season, before it expires. But now? Big question.

Fix Lee from the neck down and fix Carter from the neck up, and the Cowboys have a potentially outstanding linebacking corps.

The unit is helped financially by the potential bargains elsewhere. Justin Durant will look like a one-year stopgap. He ended his season up on the injured reserve list and can be released at a savings of $1.25 million. Journeyman backup Ernie Sims is without a contract and not a priority.

And why? Because besides being able to shop for free agents of that caliber if needed, Dallas employs

DeVonte Holloman ($495,000) and Kyle Wilber ($570,000) on rookie contracts.

As a 3-4 defensive end, Wilber was thought to be an odd-man-out when when the scheme change went from a 3-4 to 4-3. But he jumped up late in the season as a starting strongside linebacker. The rookie Holloman played safety in college and looks like a playmaker as he learns a new position in the NFL. Those two will likely battle for first-team work, with kids Cameron Lawrence, Edgar Jones and Orie Lemon working as cheap backups and special-teamers.

But those guys are the easy part of this equation. The challenge is to get Sean Lee and Bruce Carter beyond being great just "on paper."