The Cowboys received stellar play from their star linebacker Sean Lee in 2015. Rolando McClain was inconsistent but still good. They also had issues when those players missed games. That's the issue that this team has faced quite often. Sean Lee made his first Pro Bowl this season and was ranked as the fourth 4-3 outside linebacker by PFF standards. Lee also missed two games this season, the Cowboys lost both, but then again they lost a lot this past season. Rolando McClain also had a pretty good statistical year, however looking closer, you find a very inconsistent player.
The two intangibles that a Rod Marinelli defense demands are players with high motors and relentless effort. You know that you are going to get that out of Lee, but McClain has proven that he may not be willing to do the same each game. The Cowboys could look to replace McClain this offseason due to his inconsistencies and this year's draft may offer them a chance at significant upgrades. Marinelli's defense has always been at its best when the linebackers are making plays. The Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlachers of the world come to mind. Matt Eberflus has been one of the best assistants in the league, maybe it's time to get him a playmaker or two. Whether they decide to get a dynamic player with their first pick or they choose to find quality players in the later rounds, linebackers are shaping up as a pretty solid class in 2016.
OLB Myles Jack, 6'1, 245 lbs (CBS 5th Prospect)
What more can be said about Jack? He is becoming a favorite of mine the more I watch his tape. Jack is simply a supreme athletic specimen and you can tell that he has the ability to dominate the game no matter where he lines up. UCLA has done a wonderful job at stacking their team with pure athletes and to see Jack stand out is very encouraging about his professional prospects. What is probably the most telling about Jack is that if he decided to be a running back, he would probably still be an early-round selection. His natural ability and awareness for the game are unmatched and his intensity is what you crave for in linebackers. He's so intelligent with instincts that jump out at you. In 2013, Jack won both the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year award(s). Just watching him fly all over the field making plays gives you all the reasoning you need. He could project as weakside linebacker or man the middle because his instincts allow him to be versatile.
ILB Reggie Ragland, 6'1, 259 lbs (CBS 16th Prospect)
Ragland is another very instinctual player but he's definitely a fit at the middle linebacker position regardless of 3-4 or 4-3 alignment. He's not the athletic specimen that counterpart C.J. Mosely was but don't overlook his production and abilities. At Alabama, Ragland won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015. He's got all the natural speed and ability to close on tackles. Like Rolando, when Ragland hits the ball carrier, rest assured that guy will feel it in the morning. He's not the rangiest of linebackers but if you pick him and play him in the middle, you've got a starter for years to come. He's a physical tackler and a very intelligent player to keep his eyes on the ball. He makes plays and is a very reliable open-field tackler with a fantastic motor.
OLB Jaylon Smith, 6'3, 240 lbs, (CBS 27th Prospect)
Before the knee surgery, Smith was highly regarded as perhaps a top five prospect. If all the whispers are as positive as we've been hearing, Smith should still be a first-round pick. His athleticism is unmatched and he's the most NFL-ready linebacker in the country. He's an explosive defender with the ability to just take over games, much like Jack from UCLA. Smith never takes his eye off the ball and has the natural instincts to become great at the next level. He's certainly a three-down defender and has outstanding awareness for the position. He's so versatile that he projects to dominate whether in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. One of the most underrated aspects of his game is his ability to cover. He has no problem dropping into coverage or covering slot receivers due to his speed. Smith is an all-around baller and could be a steal at the bottom of the first round. If his rehab remains on schedule then don't be surprised to see Smith shoot up the draft boards.
OLB Joshua Perry, 6'4, 253 lbs, (CBS 46th Prospect)
Perry is not getting nearly enough love from the draftniks as he should. He was very consistent in his time with the Buckeyes. His motor is outstanding and he's one of my favorite prospects in the entire draft. His instincts as both a run defender and in coverage are outstanding. He can line up at Sam and rush the passer. He's got long limbs that allow him to break through would-be blockers to make the play. He's probably best-fit as the middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and his size is intriguing for Eberflus and Marinelli. He was widely considered a leader at Ohio State for his on and off the field demeanor. He doesn't get held up by blockers in his pursuit but needs to work on not being overly aggressive which can get him taken out of plays. Still, Perry led the team in tackles with 124 which was 32 more than the next Buckeye.
OLB Deion Jones, 6'1, 219 lbs, (CBS 84th Prospect)
A somewhat underrated prospect from LSU that is slowly climbing up the charts after his week in Mobile. Like all these other prospects, Jones is extremely instinctual. He's got a great ability to read the quarterback and follow the ball then make the tackle. He's a finisher and not much will get past him on the gridiron. He's a very decisive player and uses his strength to get off blocks and make the play. Much like Smith, Jones knows how to cover and cover well. He 's even lined up as a cornerback for the Tigers. His athleticism is rare and he even does well on special teams. He's also one of the most intelligent players on the Tigers' roster. Jones led the Tigers with 100 tackles and 13.5 for loss. He also had five sacks and two interceptions. He projects to be an inside linebacker at the next level but will need to put on some weight, something he's already been working at.
ILB Tyler Matakevich, 6'0, 233 lbs, (CBS 82nd Prospect)
If you want a tackling machine as a linebacker, Matakevich is your man. After attending Prep School for one year, he transferred to Temple and became the first true freshman to record 100 tackles. He was the heart and soul of his defense and just an outstanding player. He reads and reacts with the best linebackers in the class. He's physical as any linebacker in the draft but needs to dial it back at times. There is no hesitation in his play and he's not going to waste extra movement, he takes long strides and wraps them up immediately. For any limitations, he makes up for it with intelligence and awareness. He's got impeccable timing as a blitzer and knows what he can and can't do as an athlete. Very smart, instinctive, and his leaderships qualities jump out at you. He just sounds like a player that Eberflus would love to have. You are going to get 110% from him in every game with a motor that never quits.
ILB Scooby Wright III, 6'0, 246 lbs, (CBS 111th Prospect)
One of my pet cats of the draft, Wright would give the Cowboys a sure-fire middle linebacker with instincts Brugler calls "Jedi-like". If the Cowboys move on from R. McClain, here is a hungry player that was outstanding at Arizona. Wright's timing is second to none and he's a tackling machine. The lateral agility mixed with his high motor and energy are two things that will impress Matt Eberflus and Rod Marinelli. Wright is just an all-around great player and the Cowboys' defense can't get enough of those. He's receiving comparisons to Chris Borland, another instinctual linebacker that interested resident Cowboys' draftnik Bryan Broaddus. Wright makes plays, lots of them, and he's usually the guy causing fumbles. We will take that any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Any one of these linebackers could be quality insurance for what the Cowboys currently have or could be starters down the road. The Cowboys were creating a lot of turnovers in 2014 when they had some good athletic linebackers and they need a few more playmakers. There are a lot of strong positions in this year's draft but it would be hard-pressed to find many stronger than linebacker.