Once again, a great Cowboys’ mind on Twitter, Mark Dempsey brought forth an excellent question. Is it time for the Cowboys to go light at linebacker in order to go long at defensive back or defensive line? It’s an excellent question because of the variables attached to it. Mark was only asking about the active roster, 46 players can dress on Sundays, but I wonder if they’ll only keep five linebackers, period.
Think about the way the Cowboys (and other teams) have increased the number of times they play in the nickel formation which calls for two linebackers. Assuming they have their druthers, there is nobody that’s going to take Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee off the field. That leaves the competition pretty tight between Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha. With only three spots open, someone would be left out.
For what it’s worth, the largest climb to make may be for Nzeocha, who’s been touted for his athleticism but has remained inactive for all but seven games in his career. The Cowboys loved what they got out of Anthony Hitchens as the MIKE linebacker during their 13-3 season. Damien Wilson has been on their radar as a guy who has got size, speed, and really showed up for them down the stretch. Kyle Wilber is a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. However, on special teams, the guy always finds himself forcing turnovers.
Instead of getting into the semantics of who would win what job (we’ll certainly find that out later), we should question why the Cowboys should keep only five linebackers?
First of all, as we mentioned earlier, the majority of teams play nickel defense and the number is only going up. Sure, when the Cowboys line up in the base defense, you’ll get your three linebackers but it’s increasingly beneficial to have more defensive backs on the field that can cover slot receivers and tight ends. Just looking at it from the Cowboys’ perspective, they have two nifty, gadget-types of receivers that are almost impossible to cover with Cole Beasley and now Ryan Switzer. You look at Beasley’s catch rate alone as he sits atop all slot receivers at 78.9.
You simply cannot cover those types of players with a linebacker. Since many teams are looking to find these types of players to replicate the success of teams like the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots, it has made defenses rely more heavily on formations like the nickel to get the job done. If the Cowboys are keener on having quality defensive backs on hand, it could drive the importance of the sixth linebacker down. In this case, you’re asking is it more important to keep a guy like Marquez White over that potential sixth linebacker?
Another part of the reasoning why the sixth linebacker could be less important would be if the Cowboys chose to go long on the defensive line. One player that has had a lot of opportunity of late (granted, it's shells and shorts) is Damontre Moore. The former third-round pick is likely on his last chance in the NFL and he’s apparently not been letting that go to waste:
Really hoping D Moore continues the positive trajectory.— Tom Ryle (@TomRyleBTB) June 2, 2017
What if the Cowboys break from their usual tradition of the sixth linebacker in order to activate nine defensive linemen on game day? One important note is that Moore has been taking first-team reps in the last week at right defensive end and Taco Charlton has been on the second team. Now, all of this is preliminary with lots of guys on the mend and not practicing. However, it’s an interesting topic to ponder.
With the importance of getting the best rotation, Marinelli may see a better value in keeping 11 defensive linemen and activating nine of them. It’s all about putting pressure on the quarterback; so who’s more valuable, a suddenly contributing edge rusher like Moore or that sixth linebacker? What if the Cowboys could even use Moore as a situational rusher or dare I even say it...Moore or Taco as a SAM in blitz packages?
In the last four seasons, the Cowboys have kept at least six linebackers and even kept seven last year and in 2014. It’s incredibly hard to pry that linebacker away when they usually offer up a lot of help on special teams. With that said, if you are fortunate enough to have Sean Lee and a wildcard like Jaylon Smith shows up anywhere close to what folks are hoping, it’s going to make roster cuts that much more interesting.
In recent memory, it would be hard-pressed to find a time where you felt the competition level to make this roster was so high. There are going to be some tough cuts that come up and likely find their way to another roster before the Cowboys can stash them away somewhere. When you look at the level of competition at linebacker, it sticks out though it’s not been discussed all that much.
Jaylon Smith remains the catalyst in all of this, because if he’s the “real deal” as we’ve been told by just about every source from Sean Lee to Stephen Jones, what a ride it’ll be! His ability to contribute will set all of this in motion. Then these coaches and personnel guys will have to decide what’s more valuable to this team; a sixth linebacker or a potential game day piece, be it another defensive back or pass rusher? We certainly don’t envy those that have to sort it all out.