The Cowboys have been here before.
Sean Lee never has played a full season, missing 18 games in his career. A strained hamstring and a sprained neck kept him out of five games last season, with the Cowboys starting three players at middle linebacker in Lee’s absences. Ernie Sims, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman all filled in for Lee at various times last year.
The Cowboys expect to be without Lee for all of 2014 after their defensive leader and middle linebacker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, according to sources.
“Obviously, it’s a huge loss to our team, especially our defense, but at the same time, guys have to step up,” weakside linebacker Bruce Carter said. “It’s kind of bad to say, but we’ve been in this situation before. Guys have got to step up and just play their role.”
Safety Barry Church and cornerback Brandon Carr expect to fill Lee’s leadership role, but Carr said all 11 players need to contribute.
“That’s what happens when your main dog goes down,” Carr said. “Everybody has to carry the load now. Not only my shoulders, but the other guys around the locker room, veteran guys, on that side of the ball.”
The Cowboys drafted Iowa’s Anthony Hitchens to serve as Lee’s backup, and Hitchens took all the first-team reps at middle linebacker Wednesday. Coach Jason Garrett also mentioned Holloman and Durant as possible fill-ins at the position.
“I’m trying to get better every day,” Hitchens said Wednesday. “I can’t worry about the spotlight. I’ve got a long way before I’m where I need to be. I’m just here to get better and help this team the best way I can.”
Players live by a “next-man-up” mantra in the NFL, knowing injuries are an inevitable part of the game, but the Cowboys concede they will miss Lee. Receiver Dez Bryant said he will write Lee’s No. 50 somewhere on his equipment before every game.
-- Charean Williams