The Dallas Cowboys lost a centerpiece to their 2014 defense during an OTA session Tuesday when linebacker Sean Lee tore the ACL in his left knee. The position tends to be one of leadership on the defensive side of the ball, with linebackers handling calls and checks for the entire front seven. In so many cases, the dropoff from starter to backup is cliff-like. Here are five standout college linebackers who are indispensable to their respective defenses:
1. Ramik Wilson, Georgia
The Bulldogs allowed 29 points and 375 yards on average last year, so losing its star inside linebacker for any length of time would put a hole in the middle of a defense already in need of improvement. Wilson made 133 stops last year to lead the team, plus 11 tackles for loss and four sacks, in establishing himself as one of the SEC's elite returning prospects at his position. Georgia has a number of gifted athletes on the edge of the defense, like Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. Not so much inside, however, where Wilson's backups -- Reggie Carter and Tim Kimbrough -- combined for just 13 stops last year in limited action.
2. Stephone Anthony, Clemson
Where would the Tigers' defense be without Anthony? Short 131 tackles from last year for starters, but his value goes well beyond that. He is both an effective blitzer and a quality coverage linebacker on third down, giving the Clemson defensive staff plenty of options. Anthony's backup, B.J. Goodson, appeared in seven games last year and made just seven stops. The Tigers can ill-afford to be without Anthony for any length of time.
3. Derrick Malone, Oregon
The Ducks' inside linebacker brings the irreplaceable experience of a fifth-year senior with three varsity letters into the 2014 season. He made 105 tackles last year to lead the team by a wide margin. Backup inside linebackers Rahim Cassell and Joe Walker saw significant action last year as reserves, making more than 30 tackles each, but the Ducks can not afford to lose Malone's veteran leadership and production.
4. Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State
Having excelled the last two years as the brightest young star in the Bulldogs' defense, McKinney moves into a leadership role this year that perhaps nobody else in Starkville could pull off the way he can. The heart-and-soul leader of last year's defense, inside linebacker Deontae Skinner, played right beside McKinney for two years and imparted plenty of wisdom. Now, it's on McKinney to take on the leadership role.
5. Denzel Perryman, Miami (Fla.)
The senior led the Hurricanes in solo stops last year with 69. The next-highest returner in that category? Cornerback Ladarius Gunter with just 36. Making solo stops, rather than cleaning up piles for assists, is how playmaking is done at the linebacker position. And Perryman is irreplaceable in that regard for UM. Perryman's backup is redshirt freshman JaWand Blue, with one career tackle.