Part of the reason the defensive tackles were the biggest disappointment a year ago is because of the effect their shortcomings had on the group playing behind them. I’m not saying Dallas Cowboys linebackers are absolved of all the blame. However, when the players in front of you are getting shoved into your lap, it makes it tough to get to the football.
We can also assign some of the blame to the scheme change, as well as the lack of an offseason. Still, it’s hard to come away from the 2020 campaign and not be concerned with our future at the position.
What Went Wrong?
Jaylon Smith was less active than you want from a player with his salary, and Leighton Vander Esch battled injuries for the second-straight year. Not only did Vander Esch miss six games, but he now can add a collar bone injury to a history that includes a neck surgery.
Neck and collar bone issues are not something you like to see any player struggle with, especially not a linebacker. Sean Lee also missed a good portion of the season with an injury, and Joe Thomas played his usual role as a serviceable backup that can fill in at several positions.
Possibly the most disappointing aspect of 2020 was the expectations at linebacker with Mike Nolan running the defense. Nolan has a reputation for bringing out the best in his linebackers, and he was likely hired to highlight Smith and Vander Esch’s extraordinary talents.
Instead, it seems as if we are worse off today than we were a year ago. Now, it appears Dallas is looking for their linebackers to prove they are worth keeping around past 2021 instead of being a part of the core we aim to build around.
Which Cowboys Linebackers Are Returning?
Despite speculation that Smith would be let go in an attempt to create more cap flexibility, Dallas needed to make that move prior to March 21 to avoid guaranteeing his $7.2 salary. That date has passed, meaning he is in the Cowboys’ plans for the upcoming season.
Vander Esch also returns for his fourth year out of Boise State. Between the two, Dallas should have their starting duo at the middle and weak-side position, and newly-signed Keanu Neal will also factor into the weak-side position while playing some safety as well.
A pair of former-undrafted free agents that impressed in back-to-back preseasons also return in Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard.
Which Cowboys Linebackers Aren’t Returning?
Perhaps one of the most underrated Cowboys linebackers on the roster over the last several years was Thomas. During his three seasons in Dallas, Thomas was a versatile reserve that could backup multiple positions, and he even made six starts during that time.
With him signing on for a year in Houston, Dallas loses an important reserve player moving forward. Sean Lee is still on the free-agent market as well, as he mulls returning to the NFL for his 11th season.
Mike McCarthy acknowledged that Lee and the Cowboys have an ongoing dialogue about his return, but first, Lee will need to decide on his future. Justin March another veteran that still hasn’t found a home and could return as a reserve and special-teams contributor.
What Do Cowboys Need at Linebacker?
This is a question with an easy answer, as well as a difficult one. Let’s start with the difficult one, which pertains to the middle and weak-side position. As I mentioned earlier, Smith and Vander Esch should be considered the front runners at those two spots, while Neal will be involved as well.
However, each could be playing for their futures in Dallas this season. Neal is only on a one-year deal. The Cowboys will have a difficult decision to make on Vander Esch by May 3, involving his fifth-year option.
If they choose to decline, Vander Esch’s contract will be up after this year. As for Smith, Dallas could cut ties with him following this season at the cost of only $6.8M, which would be spread over the next three years if designated a post-June 1 move.
That move would save Dallas an average of nearly $11M in cap space over each of the next four years. So essentially, he too could be playing his final year as a Cowboy.
Can Smith and Vander Esch Change Quinn’s Preference?
Now I point all that out to get to this; we don’t know what Dan Quinn’s long-term vision for the position entails. While Quinn’s time in Seattle involved linebackers built similarly to Vander Esch and Smith, he chose to completely overhaul the position in Atlanta by bringing in undersized, quicker players like Neal will be.
It would appear, Quinn favors the latter skillset in his defense, but I honestly believe Vander Esch and Smith are being given a chance to sway him in 2021. Because of that, I don’t think we will see a significant addition in the draft involving a player that can play either of these two positions.
However, a day-three pick could be used on an undersized player for depth and possible insurance for a change moving forward in 2022 if Smith and Vander Esch don’t work out.
Who Plays on the Strong Side?
That’s the complex answer at the position. The easy one is that the Cowboys have to find someone that can play on the strong side. This is a role that is often taking on blocks in the base defense, or even coming off the edge depending on the play design and personnel.
Dallas has no one on their current roster that would be an ideal fit at this position, as the skill set required is far different from the middle or weak-side linebackers. I highlighted K.J. Wright as strong fit for this role prior to free agency, and fellow-Cowboys beat writer, Jarrett Prendergast reciprocated those sentiments in his article on deals that Dallas could get done before the draft arrives.
Still, Wright remains a free agent, meaning Dallas needs to do plenty of homework on linebackers that could potentially fill this role in 2021.
Cowboys Draft Targets at Linebacker
It’s very doubtful that the Cowboys will use their tenth-overall selection on a linebacker. The only one that would provide adequate value in that range would be Penn State’s Micah Parsons, who ranks eighth on my Big Board.
Still, Parsons has a similar skillset and build to that of Smith and Vander Esch. If Dallas believes Parsons could thrive in their system, I see no reason why they wouldn’t think the same for the other two.
Strong Side Options
As I stated, the strong-side position is most likely the player they would target early in the draft. It’s highly unlikely that Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari would slip into the second round, but if he somehow made it to the 44th selection, Dallas would have to consider him strongly.
He’s one of the best point-of-attack players in this class, making Ojulari a terrific fit on the strong side. The former Bulldog would also give Dallas an option coming off the edge in the nickel package.
Someone who is likely to be available at 44 would be Texas Joseph Ossai. He, too, would fit the strong-side role and has one of the best motors in this class.
In the third round, Ohio State’s Baron Browning would be a terrific fit. Like Ojulari, he is one of the best in this draft at taking on blocks, and Browning actually has the versatility to play any of Dallas’ three linebacker positions.
Day 3 Options for Depth
As for someone who could provide depth at the middle or weak-side position, I’m sticking to day-three prospects. TCU’s Garret Wallow shouldn’t last long on the final day of the draft and showed exceptional quickness at his pro day, in which Dallas had plenty of representation in attendance.
Michigan’s Cameron McGrone, West Virginia’s Tony Fields, Boston College’s Isaiah McDuffie, or Georgia’s Monty Rice could be similar options as well. I’d also keep an eye on Houston’s Grant Stuard, who plays with as much energy as anyone in this class.