5 free agents Dallas Cowboys could target at LB, like a 4-time All-Pro to play alongside Sean Lee
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OAKLAND, CA – DECEMBER 17: Alfred Morris #46 of the Dallas Cowboys catches the ball in front of NaVorro Bowman #53 of the Oakland Raiders during their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 17, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
By Brandon George , Staff Writer Contact Brandon George on Twitter:
Perhaps the most complex position to evaluate this offseason for the Cowboys is at linebacker because of all the unknowns.
How the Cowboys approach free agency at linebacker will greatly be determined by whether they can re-sign unrestricted free agent Anthony Hitchens.
If he signs elsewhere, the Cowboys will likely be more aggressive in free agency trying to sign another linebacker. If he re-signs, the Cowboys could just turn to the draft to add depth at linebacker unless they like a veteran who could come at a bargain on the open market.
Other unknowns for the Cowboys at the position include whether All-Pro Sean Lee can stay healthy and whether Jaylon Smith can continue to progress and get closer to the player he was at Notre Dame before his serious knee injury.
Breaking down potential free-agent targets for the Cowboys at each position
Even if the Cowboys do re-sign Hitchens, however, they still need to add depth at linebacker. Kyle Wilber is also an unrestricted free agent this offseason and might not return.
The Cowboys also need reliable players behind Lee and Smith with their injury history in question.
Here are five linebackers who could be targets in free agency for the Cowboys:
Anthony Hitchens, Cowboys (6-0, 235)
Andy Jacobsohn/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens (59) enters the field before a National Football League game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California Sunday October 22, 2017. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News)
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones has said one of the club’s top priorities this offseason is to re-sign unrestricted free agent Anthony Hitchens.
Hitchens is one of the most-undervalued players on the roster who quietly goes about his business and improves each year.
Hitchens, who will be 26 in June, has started at middle linebacker the last two seasons and had his best year yet in 2017. His career-high 92 tackles ranked third on the team and his nine tackles for loss was second on the Cowboys.
He did it all despite missing the first four games of the season with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee that he suffered in the Aug. 26 preseason game against Oakland.
Cowboys free agents most likely to depart in 2018: Can Dallas keep LB Anthony Hitchens from moving on?
The Cowboys first feared that the knee injury was a torn anterior cruciate ligament and he’d be lost for the season. Instead, he was told he’d miss about eight weeks but ended up returning after only four games.
Hitchens has started 48 of his 60 games with the Cowboys since they made him a fourth-round pick in 2014 out of Iowa. He’s been a nice complement to All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee on the weak-side.
Hitchens’ market probably improved with Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus taking the defensive coordinator job in Indianapolis. Eberflus coached Hitchens throughout his time with the Cowboys and could pursue him in free agency to bolster the Colts’ linebacker corps now that Indianapolis will switch to a 4-3 scheme similar to the Cowboys.
The Cowboys also wanted to re-sign safety Barry Church a year ago in free agency, but his market proved too high for Dallas and it was forced to let him walk. That could again come to fruition this offseason for Dallas with Hitchens.
Keep this in mind: The Colts will have about $80 million in salary cap space to work with this offseason. That’s about four times more than what the Cowboys will have to spend. So, Indianapolis certainly could afford to overpay Hitchens.
NaVorro Bowman, Raiders (6-0, 242)
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OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 19: NaVorro Bowman #53 of the Oakland Raiders reacts after a play against the Kansas City Chiefs during their NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 19, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
If Anthony Hitchens slips away in free agency, the Cowboys could pursue veteran NaVorro Bowman for their starting middle linebacker spot.
That would largely depend on what they believe the future is for Jaylon Smith in his return from a serious knee injury.
Bowman would upgrade the Cowboys’ linebacker depth and be a natural fit alongside weak-side All-Pro Sean Lee. Bowman and Lee played alongside each other in college at Penn State and stay in touch.
The Cowboys almost had a chance to sign Bowman in October.
On Oct. 13, San Francisco released Bowman at his request. He set up two visits: the first was with Oakland and the second with the Cowboys.
But he never made it out of Oakland, signing with the Raiders only three days after his release on a one-year, $3 million deal.
Bowman’s market will also determine whether the Cowboys pursue him or not. If it climbs too high, Dallas will pass.
Bowman, who turns 30 in May, has been a first-team All-Pro four times and is a three-time Pro Bowler.
But he also comes with injury history. He torn his left anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament in the 2013 postseason that forced him to miss the entire 2014 season.
Then in 2016 in a game against the Cowboys, Bowman tore his Achilles tendon. He only played the first four games before missing the rest of the season.
Preston Brown, Bills (6-1, 251)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 17: Preston Brown #52 of the Buffalo Bills talks with side judge Walt Coleman IV #87 during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins on December 17, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Preston Brown is line for a big raise. Will the Cowboys be the team that gives it to him?
Brown continued to be a tackling machine in 2017 by tying for the NFL lead with 144. He made only $1.7 million in base salary last season and should have several suitors willing to give him a lucrative multi-year deal in free agency.
Brown, who turns 26 in October, would give the Cowboys a boost in depth at inside linebacker.
In his four seasons with the Bills, Brown started every game but two. Those came in his rookie season of 2014. His tackle total has increased each season: from 109 as a rookie to 120 to 139 to 144.
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He was a third-round selection in 2014 out of Louisville, going 46 picks ahead of Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the draft.
Brown has never missed a game in his career. He could be an option for the Cowboys at middle linebacker if Hitchens leaves in free agency.
Michael Wilhoite, Seahawks (6-0, 245)
Michael Wilhoite would give the Cowboys more depth at inside linebacker, but he wouldn’t be a walk-in starter.
Wilhoite started nine games last season for Seattle under defensive coordinator Kris Richard, who is now the Cowboys’ defensive backs coach/passing game coordinator. Wilhoite had 30 tackles in his 14 games played for the Seahawks.
That was Wilhoite’s only season in Seattle. His first five seasons were with San Francisco, where he started 36 games.
Wilhoite, 31, went undrafted in 2011 out of Washburn
Keenan Robinson, Giants (6-3, 245)
Louis DeLuca/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) tries to run past New York Giants linebacker Keenan Robinson (57) after a pass catch during the Dallas Cowboys vs. the New York Giants NFL football game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Sunday, December 11, 2016. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)
Maybe Keenan Robinson should just keep it in the NFC East in 2018.
Robinson played his first three seasons with Washington and his last two seasons with the Giants, so could the Cowboys be his third NFC East team to play for in his career?
Robinson, who will turn 29 in July, wouldn’t be a starter for the Cowboys but would give them some depth at outside linebacker.
Robinson could come at a bargain price, too, considering he bet on himself last offseason by turning down multi-year deals to sign a one-year, $3 million contract to return to the Giants … and it didn’t work out well.
Robinson couldn’t stay healthy, suffering a quad injury in mid-November that ended his season on injured reserve. Robinson started three of the six games he played in for the Giants in 2017, finishing with 32 tackles.
In 2016 with the Giants, Robinson was a key piece of their defense. He played about 70 percent of the Giants’ defensive snaps at nickel linebacker and was solid against the pass.
It would be a homecoming for Robinson if he signed with the Cowboys. He played high school football at Plano East and in college at Texas before the Redskins made him a fourth-round pick in 2012.
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