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Cowboys draft 2018: Finding a quality linebacker for the Cowboys

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The Cowboys are looking for a starting-caliber linebacker, here’s the good and bad for all the candidates.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We already took a look at the receivers, a position the Cowboys have focused much of their attention on. We’ll continue today with the linebacker position. The Cowboys usually deploy two starting linebackers and they have one good one, and one that the jury is still out on. The problem is that Sean Lee missed five games last season and Jaylon Smith is still trying to reach his previous level before the injury.

The Cowboys still need a third starting-caliber linebacker that can replace Anthony Hitchens, who signed with the Chiefs during free agency. Looking at the landscape of linebackers that should be of interest, here’s a collection of their collegiate production among other things:

Name School Tackles TFL's Int 40 time Sacks Fumbles Pos. Rank Proj. Round Pro Comp.
Tremaine Edmunds (6'4, 253 lbs) Virginia Tech 213 33 1 4.54 10 3 1 1 Brian Urlacher
Roquan Smith (6'1, 236 lbs) Georgia 252 20.5 0 4.51 6.5 3 2 1 Deion Jones
Leighton Vander Esch (6'4, 256 lbs) Boise State 188 13 3 4.65 5 4 3 1-2 Karlos Dansby
Rashaan Evans (6'2, 232 lbs) Alabama 150 23.5 0 4.73 15 2 4 1-2 Lawrence Timmons
Malik Jefferson (6'2, 236 lbs) Texas 231 26 0 4.52 13 2 5 2 Jordan Hicks
Micah Kiser (6'0, 238 lbs) Virginia 408 33.5 1 4.66 19 8 6 2-3 Luke Kuechly
Jerome Baker (6'1, 229 lbs) Ohio State 159 17.5 2 4.53 7 1 7 2-3 Darron Lee
Josey Jewell (6'1, 234 lbs) Iowa 433 28 6 4.82 10 3 8 3 Sean Lee
Shaquem Griffin (6'0, 227 lbs) Central Florida 195 33.5 3 4.38 18.5 2 9 3 Su'a Cravens
Fred Warner (6'3, 236 lbs) Brigham Young 262 32.5 7 4.64 6.5 3 10 3-4 Alani Fua
Genard Avery (6'0, 248 lbs) Memphis 230 44.5 2 4.59 21.5 3 11 4 Elandon Roberts
Azeem Victor (6'1, 240 lbs) Washington 198 14 1 4.72 3.5 3 12 5 Vontaze Burfict
Darius Leonard (6'2, 234 lbs) South Carolina State 381 42 6 4.7 20 7 13 5 Wesley Woodyard
Jack Cichy (6'2, 238 lbs) Wisconsin 121 15 0 4.79 6.5 2 14 5-6 Nick Vigil
Tegray Scales (6'0, 230 lbs) Indiana 324 46 8 4.77 17 1 15 5-6 Brandon Marshall
Nick Deluca (6'3, 251 lbs) North Dakota State 325 14.5 7 4.85 8.5 5 16 7-FA N/A
Shaun Dion Hamilton (6'0, 229 lbs) Alabama 134 16 2 4.76 4.5 2 17 7-FA Martrell Spaight
Travin Howard (6'0, 211 lbs) TCU 345 20.5 3 4.58 5.5 4 18 FA N/A

Much like we did with the receivers, we’re going to look at linebackers in the top three rounds melding together our own scouting reports with deeper help from Lance Zierlein at NFL.com and Dane Brugler at NFLDraftScout.com

First Round

Roquan Smith, Georgia

Positives Negatives
Elite athleticism, speed demon Undersized
High football IQ and instincts Needs to be faster to diagnose
Fluid and explosive in space Improvement with hand work is needed
Sharp focus and discipline Needs to avoid second level traffic
Rare stop-start motion can flip target with ease Tendency to come in hot as a tackler
Great job at jumping crossing patterns

Cowboys fit: He’s simply one of the most explosive athletes in this draft and will walk right in as a starter at any linebacker position you want him to play. Smith is a rookie of the year candidate as his abilities can not be overstated. He could become a catalyst for the Cowboys defense going forward. He might be out of reach for the Cowboys though, he’s expected to go around Top-10.

Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech

Positives Negatives
Imposing frame that he wears well Step slow to diagnose
Excellent lateral quickness Can be fooled by misdirection
His unique size and speed casts large playmaking net Is too ahead of himself at times, losing leverage
Finisher as a tackler Needs more upper body strength
Elite disruption in all phases Patience is lacking, mental busts at times
Great pass rusher
Effective in man coverage

Cowboys fit: Edmunds is another plug-and-play starter that would fit nicely at the MIKE position. Edmunds has tremendous size and moves well for his big frame. Rod Marinelli would likely see the second coming of Brian Urlacher because that’s the type of instinctual effort Edmunds gives. He can make all the tackles and serve as the captain of the defense. Like Smith above, he might not make it down to pick #19.

Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

Positives Negatives
Elite athletic profile and length Limited experience (1 year)
No delays in change of direction Needs to improve play strength
Quick-twitch agility Struggles to free himself from blocks
Great instincts in coverage with recovery ability Hasn't mastered hand technique
Very quick but also very smooth as an athlete Takes himself out of tackles by overpursuing
Show true talent as an edge rushing linebacker

Cowboys fit: The Cowboys really like Vander Esch because they see him as an ascending player despite the lack of experience. Vander Esch does make a habit of showing up when he’s needed most. He’s also one of the most talented linebackers in terms of coverage which is coveted by every team in the league.

Rashaan Evans, Alabama

Positives Negatives
Quick diagnosing abilities Doesn't have the best instincts
Premium athlete with elite agility and explosion Needs to improve his punch
Can work around the trash Nagging groin injury needs evaluation
Very speedy to stick with scat backs Needs to trust his athleticism a bit more
Very patient and doesn’t get fooled Could stand to improve his leverage ability
Explosive wrap-up tackler Benefitted from playing behind elite talent
Durable and will play through minor stuff

Cowboys fit: He’s built in the mold of today’s NFL linebackers, just over six feet, with the speed to chase and tackle. He’s got thumping ability that reminds you of former Cowboy Rolando McClain without all the other mess. Evans would be a solid first-round selection for the Cowboys because he’s versatile but also an eraser. He doesn’t let many plays escape him and is a reliable tackler.

Second Round

Malik Jefferson, Texas

Positives Negatives
Good length and musculature for NFL Guesser that lacks instincts
Loose hips and explosive speed Play speed not consistent with actual speed
Very rangy athlete that covers ground quickly Can be passive at times
Has that second gear in pursuit Needs to think less and just play
Tackles improved to over 100 with new coordinator Undisciplined zone defender
Has burst and spring ability Needs to improve aggressiveness
Very solid man coverage ability with strength to reroute

Cowboys fit: Jefferson has some raw talent plus he flashes speed and explosion but it’s not consistent. Jefferson’s production is hard to deny but he needs a coordinator to place him an assignment and leave him there. If the Cowboys just want a run-and-hit linebacker with plus athleticism, Jefferson could grow into the complete package.

Micah Kiser, Virginia

Positives Negatives
Production is staggering in three seasons Pad level is concerning
Very quick reactionary skills, diagnoses with ease Makes and misses tackles, needs to wrap up
Elite toughness who welcomes contact Sluggish lateral quickness
Sturdy build with banger frame Liability in man coverage
Never overpursues, makes immediate tackles Not very rangy and struggles to match patterns
Brings it at every level of play on the field
Good recognition on cutbacks

Cowboys fit: Kiser is hard to decipher because some folks would rather call him a safety. He does have elite recognition which helps because he lacks the range in coverage. Kiser put up over 400 tackles and 19 sacks which is hard to ignore. He’s a very competitive linebacker that loves to hit people which is always a plus.

Jerome Baker, Ohio State

Positives Negatives
Very fluid and fast athlete Inconsistent motor
Loose hips and great footwork Loses gap leverage and gets knocked around
Tremendous range Instincts are below par
Has speed to close down running lanes Needs to improve hand work
Easy change of direction and elusiveness Looks small, plays small, lacks play strength
Can outrun his mistakes in diagnosing Lingers instead of bringing the tackle
Elite athleticism to handle top NFL athletes

Cowboys fit: Baker is an impressive athlete with a lot of range for the position. The Cowboys will not be a fan of his lack of fight and instincts. Baker is more a speedy athlete that could serve well on their special teams unit but it’s hard to envision them liking him as a potential starter. He’s got the speed to cover so many types of athletes but he looks very small. Baker will need a creative coordinator to find a role for him.

Third Round

Josey Jewell, Iowa

Positives Negatives
Absolute film junkie, wins games on Wednesday Lacks desired speed
Eyes work fast and he sees everything Average athleticism
Steady flow downhill to make tackles Can get lost behind defensive line at times
Instincts are off the charts with elite diagnosing abilities Will need to slip more blocks
Tackles everything and everyone Hip fluidity is a concern
Uses great technique and discipline Struggles with early depth in dropping back
Reads quarterbacks and keeps pads square

Cowboys fit: Jewell has all the instincts and awareness to be the Cowboys starting linebacker but the lack of pure athleticism could get him exposed. He’s a try-hard player that has made up for his athletic deficiencies with his great work ethic and diagnosing skills. Jewell will find a home in the NFL but will need a good defensive line to keep him from having to make every play.

Shaquem Griffin, Central Florida

Positives Negatives
Amazing athlete Plays a little too linear
Very good processor and executor of the game plan Needs to improve knee bend
Solid upper body strength and power Needs to improve lower body strength
Punisher as a tackler Disengaging blocks is challenging
Possesses great instincts and versatility Falls for cut blocks too much
Blazing 4.3 speed Needs to correct target point for tackling
Very good burst that shows consistently

Cowboys fit: For a guy without a left hand, he’s done his best to show folks he’s a true player. His speed is unmatched and as a coverage linebacker, that speed will be coveted. Griffin is extremely competitive, though he has his concerns. His athleticism and instincts combine for a really solid linebacker prospects. With the right team, Griffin could serve as a great defensive weapon.

Fred Warner, BYU

Positives Negatives
Has hybrid appeal with slot abilities Inconsistent angles leads to arm tackling
Great length and fluidity Scheme allowed him to play off the line, scheme fit
Moves like a safety playing linebacker Can thump but not consistently
Change of direction is effortless, solid athleticism Needs to add play strength
Active tackler who takes the ball away Motor clicks on and off
Very quick diagnosis with great instinctual effort
Really good closing burst

Cowboys fit: Warner is a prospect that is very fitting for the Cowboys as a player that can start but doesn’t need to right away. Warner’s athleticism and instincts are above average which will get him looks early. He can come in and compete at all three linebacker spots but his true fit will have to be determined. Warner is the typical off-ball linebacker that the Cowboys will rate highly.