Back in the offseason, I wrote a sort of a hot topic column discussing the impact that linebackers Sean Lee and Rolando McClain would provide for the Cowboys' defense. Sean Lee played one of his best seasons and managed to stay on the field for 14 games. PFF graded Lee as the 4th best linebacker in the 4-3 scheme and he showed just how valuable he can be. In games that Lee wasn't on the field, the results tended to not be so great. Rolando McClain also finished as the 13th ranked inside linebacker, not as efficient as last season but in ways his consistency level improved.
Despite having two pretty solid starters at the positions, with those two, there is always an issue of health and consistency. The Cowboys also need to look at what they have behind those two guys. Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson are both 4th-round picks that still have some developing to do. In the Cowboys 4-3, the linebackers tend to make a lot of plays. If they want to find an impact player this offseason, linebacker could be a great place to find help.
The first thing the coaches and front office will be tasked with is whether or not to keep Rolando McClain on the roster for another season. In the past, there have been issues with his 'desire' to play the game and at times he's been a headache for the coaches. McClain had a pretty good year for the Cowboys and I never got the impression that he didn't care. Before they look at any outside free agent options, McClain should receive consideration as the starter going forward. Also, it's not certain that he is going to command much around the league. They just may be able to get him relatively cheap again.
Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks
Irvin was a player that the Cowboys liked coming out of college and Seattle has other free agents like left tackle Russell Okung and defensive tackle Brandon Mebane to consider, among others. If Irvin were to hit the market, he's likely to get more than he may be worth but the Cowboys will have some resources to spend. The Cowboys like what Seattle does on defense and Irvin could play Sam linebacker in their scheme. Though they didn't use a Sam much this season, it may have been because they lacked the talent to do so. Irvin could be a little extra help and possibly put forth a solid performance in blitzing situations.
Disclaimer: There is a slew of good linebackers that are out there such as Von Miller and Tamba Hali, but realistically speaking, the Cowboys aren't going to bid on those big names. Bruce Irvin may even be a stretch depending on what he commands on the open market.
The 2016 Draft
Most of us would all agree that the best way to build your team is via the draft and this year will offer up some pretty decent options to build for the future. The linebackers in the 4-3 scheme are integral to getting turnovers and the Cowboys needs some more guys with ball skills. Let's look at what Walter Football has to say about some of the top prospects.
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Smith was the 2015 Butkus Award winning linebacker and is a top five prospect. Todd McShay even mocked Smith to land with the Cowboys in his first try. However, the report today is that Smith is going to undergo reconstructive knee surgery which is likely going to put a big damper in his draft plans this season. Either way, he's considered by many to be a can't-miss prospect.
12/19/15: Smith looks like a future three-down starter who is capable of stuffing the run and covering ground in pass coverage. He is quick, instinctive and consistent. The way that Notre Dame has lined up Smith shows that he can play as an inside or outside linebacker in the NFL. Smith is giving evidence that he is deserving of being a first-rounder and a top-20 talent.
In 2015, Smith has totaled 113 tackles, nine for a loss, one sack, four passes broken up and one forced fumble (he was robbed of one by the official scorer).
8/24/15: Smith was an impressive defender for Notre Dame in 2014. He was all over the field for the Fighting Irish with 112 tackles with nine tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, 3.5 sacks and two passes defended. Smith has speed and athleticism in the middle of the field.
Smith saw the field as a freshman and had 67 tackles with 6.5 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble, one interception and three passes broken up.
Myles Jack, UCLA
Jack injured his knee in practice and is done for the year. In his three-game 2015 season, he made 15 tackles, one pass broken up and one interception, plus two carries for seven yards with a touchdown. Even with the injury, Jack announced that he will enter the 2016 NFL Draft rather than risk further injury by returning to UCLA.
8/24/15: Jack racked up 87 tackles with eight tackles for a loss, seven passes broken up, one interception and one forced fumble in 2014. His natural pass-coverage skills are extremely impressive. NFL evaluators are going to love what Jack can do in the passing game. Not only was Jack a freshman starter in 2013; he became a superstar who was named the Pac-12's Offensive AND Defensive Freshman of the Year. On the defensive side of the ball, Jack notched 75 tackles with 11 passes broken up and two interceptions. His pass-coverage skills for a freshman were outstanding. Jack was playing both ways in 2013 because of injuries at running back. He ran for 267 yards on 38 carries (7.0 average) with seven touchdowns. Jack ripped off 120 yards on six carries against Arizona, including a 66-yard run. He rumbled for four touchdowns against Washington, his home-state school.
Jack's long-term NFL future is at linebacker, but it wouldn't be surprising if he's used as a goal-line running back if he lands with a creative coaching staff. Jack is naturally strong, fast and instinctive. He has tons of potential and upside.
Those are just the top candidates in the draft but there are others that have drawn some first round interest including Leonard Floyd, Georgia (more of an edge rusher), Scooby Wright III, Arizona (late-first), and Reggie Ragland, Alabama (late-first). Either way, the Cowboys will have plenty of opportunities to get some impact players at linebacker but the two at the top could be game-changers for years to come.