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Cowboys 2018 draft: Linebacker targets for each day of the draft

The Cowboys might draft a linebacker early in the draft, but we’ve got prospects for any occasion.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys routinely select linebackers in the NFL Draft. Since 2000, the Cowboys have had just three drafts where they have not drafted a linebacker (2002, 2004, 2017). Despite the bevy of picks they have used for the position, Dallas has really not done a productive job of adding quality, long-term linebackers. Players like Caleb McSurdy, Victor Butler, Will Smith, Mark Nzeocha, and Jason Williams really made no significant contribution for the Cowboys.

As it stands now, the Cowboys’ depth chart at the position consists of Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith as the set-in-stone starters with guys like Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, and Damien Wilson duking it out for the third spot. While the Cowboys do not put a great emphasis on three-linebacker sets, the reality is the Cowboys will likely draft one or two linebackers at some point in the draft.

Unfortunately, due to their high draft stock, Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds are not on this list. The purpose of this article is to inform Cowboys fans of linebacker prospects at each tier of the draft for the Cowboys, and it’s likely Smith and Edmunds will be gone by pick #19.

Day 1

Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State

Nicknamed “LVE” by the draft experts everywhere, Vander Esch is a player that could intrigue the Cowboys. For starters, he hails from Boise State. And for whatever reason, the Cowboys have a history with Boise State players. Dallas has drafted Orlando Scandrick, Tyrone Crawford, and DeMarcus Lawrence out of the school. All of which have had or are having productive careers with the Cowboys.

So what is Dallas’ interest in LVE? Well, the Cowboys have allocated one of their 30 pre-draft visits on Vander Esch. On top of that, the Cowboys have also had Vander Esch in for a private workout. At 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, with good athleticism and range to go with it, Vander Esch has the makings of a sideline-to-sideline linebacker in the NFL.

While he was somewhat of a one-year wonder in college, Vander Esch’s production totals and combine performance are eye-popping. For him to benefit from the get-go, he will need to a strong interior defensive line to give him semi-open tackling lanes. Nonetheless, the interest in LVE is serious from Dallas.

Rashaan Evans, Alabama

Dallas’ main brass went to Alabama’s Pro Day on March 7th. Obviously, there are a ton of prospects the Cowboys could have been there for. But the main three they were there for were wide receiver Calvin Ridley, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, and linebacker Rashaan Evans.

Mocked a couple weeks ago to the Cowboys by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., Evans is an athletic and intelligent linebacker who displays great instincts. He is physical, and does a good job of getting after the quarterback when asked.

Day 2

Malik Jefferson, Texas

A private workout participant, Jefferson could stay in state to play for the Dallas. He is a rangy linebacker who checks in at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds.

At that size, Jefferson may be a long-shot to contribute right away for an NFL roster. However, he embodies the mold that the linebacker position is moving to in the NFL. His athleticism is off the charts, as his combine numbers indicate. On top of being a guy who can cover each part of the field, Jefferson shows the ability to blitz with efficiency and cover skill positions like running backs and even tight ends. With his talent, Jefferson would be a nice fit in Dallas’ 4-3 scheme.

Darius Leonard, South Carolina State

Get to know the name Darius Leonard. The Cowboys have used one of their 30 pre-draft visits on him and they have also had him in for a private workout. There is potential that goes with Leonard’s prospects, but he is far from polished going into the NFL. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Leonard will need to pack on some additional weight. The good news is that he has the frame needed to do so.

Similar to Jefferson, Leonard could be of use in Dallas for his athletic play-making ability. He turns directions with ease, he can get skinny to get through small gaps, and he can be used as back-side blitzer if asked. It comes naturally to him to defend opposing tight ends. Again, he will need to add on weight. But with his frame and an NFL training program, he will be able to do that.

Fred Warner, BYU

Another player the Cowboys had a private workout with, Warner is quite the intriguing talent. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Warner’s athleticism is remarkable. He posted a 4.63 40-time at the combine, 21 reps on the bench press, a 38.5 vertical jump, and a 6.9-time in the 3-cone drill.

With his size and how he was deployed at BYU, Warner has the makings of a guy that could really be used in a linebacker or safety role. His instincts are spectacular and he seems to always be near the football. Because of his peculiar usage at BYU, there are questions as to how he can be used in the NFL. However, he could have a role from the start in Dallas’ defensive packages on passing downs.

Shaquem Griffin, UCF

There may not be a better story in the entire draft class than UCF’s Griffin. He was born with amniotic band syndrome. At the age of four, his left hand was amputated, but that did not stop Griffin from playing three sports for his entire childhood and absolutely dominating at UCF. While some may seem to be fine with his condition, there is also the worry of his size at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds.

Griffin posted a 4.38 40-yard dash and, with the usage of a device that helped him grab ahold of the bar, 20 reps on the bench press. Regardless of his size and his condition, Griffin really is a standout prospect.

He has a natural feel for the game. He could be of use in the NFL as an pass-rushing backer in a 3-4 scheme or a play either outside linebacker spot in a 4-3 scheme. He’s a violent football player that uses power to get past offensive lineman and get to quarterbacks. He also displays excellent range and takes great angles to the football.

Griffin’s football acumen is off the charts and with the Cowboys continue trying to buy into Jason Garrett’s “Right Kinda Guy” mantra, perhaps Griffin could end up in Big D.

Day 3

Josey Jewell, Iowa

At 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, Jewell is quite small. On top of that, he is not athletic. He ran one of the slower 40 times at the combine, running a 4.82 40-time. He does not move well and struggles to contribute sideline-to-sideline.

On the other hand, Jewell is an absolute grinder. He was a four-year contributor at Iowa, playing against Big Ten offensive lineman. He is an awesome tackler and he understands his role. His football IQ is off the charts. Jewell is your typical blue-collar type of player who does all of the dirty work.

You cannot teach pure instinct like Jewell possesses. There are plenty of concerns with him, but he could be be a nice choice on Day 3. Jewell is the type of player that will intrigue hard-nosed coaches and Rod Marinelli could just pull the trigger.

Shaun Dion Hamilton, Alabama

At this point of the draft, there is no harm in looking for players who may have the talent to be drafted high, but medical issues brought down their stock. Remember Evans from above? Well, Hamilton was his counterpart for nine games this past season.

At Alabama, Hamilton was one of the figureheads of their annually-dynamic attack. He is somewhat limited due to his size, but he moves laterally quite efficiently and he has plus play speed. He can get past blockers and while he may need be a superstar linebacker in the NFL, he offers assistance in special teams as well.

Which linebackers do you want the Cowboys to target in the draft?

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