Back at the start of free agency in 2018, the Cowboys lost linebacker Anthony Hitchens when the Kansas City Chiefs decided to wildly overpay him. At that point, every Cowboys fan was in their right mind to be very concerned about the linebacker unit in Dallas. Sean Lee was still here, but as every Cowboys fan knows, Lee has the hardest time completing a season uninjured. His talent is supreme, but so is his penchant for missing games. Jaylon Smith was also still here, and despite amazing everyone by playing all 16 games last season, he was still not on the level the organization had hoped for when they drafted him. Behind those two, the Cowboys had guys like Damien Wilson and Justin March-Lillard, not exactly the depth you need. This was a not a solid unit at the time.
Fast forward to today, and there is hope that the Cowboys linebacking unit can be something special. What changed? Free agency, the draft and better health from Jaylon Smith. We’re going to go with a big “if” here, but “if” a few things fall into place, Dallas may have a linebacker corps that ends up being the strength of the defense.
We’ll start with Sean Lee. Nothing has changed there. We haven’t found the secret sauce to keep him healthy, so we head into 2018 with the same concerns as always. But over the last three seasons, Lee has managed to play about 83% of the games. The move to WLB has helped keep him healthy, and this year there is hopefully some decent depth behind him.
Then there is Jaylon Smith. He had all-world talent in college before his devastating injury. If Smith can reclaim most of that talent, then 2017 could be looked at as his worst year, and in 2018 we could see a totally different player.
What the Cowboys linebacker can tell you is that he feels “more like myself’’ than at any point since that devastating knee injury 29 months ago. His confidence and muscle mass is up, his body fat is down and a new-found love for yoga helps with his flexibility and focus.
”Everything just feels better, from my emotion to my quickness to my explosiveness to my overall knowledge of the game,’’ Smith said Wednesday afternoon after the Cowboys completed their fifth organized team activity of the offseason.
“Maybe more than anything else, I think he’s moving more spontaneously now,’’ Garrett said. “You see him maybe get in a compromising position and react his way out of it physically maybe better than he had before.’’
Tellingly, Smith has ditched the brace he had to use last year that helped compensate for his drop foot issues. My colleague RJ Ochoa asked the community how much we are buying the Smith hype, and there does appear to be optimism.
The Cowboys spend a lot of time in two-linebacker formations, but having three quality linebackers is key. With the questions present around Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, having a third guy that can perform is essential. The Cowboys think they found that guy in Leighton Vander Esch. Big and athletic, Vander Esch will be called upon to man the middle of the defense. Obviously we don’t know if he’s up to the task yet, but he certainly has the physical skills to be an outstanding linebacker.
There is one other thing the Cowboys did that has gone under-the-radar for the most part. They signed free agent Joe Thomas. He’s probably not a guy you want to depend on long-term as a starter, but he’s a quality backup and spot starter if needed. With that move, guys like March-Lillard, Wilson and Chris Covington are pushed further down the depth chart.
Sure, many things could go wrong for the Cowboys at linebacker, it feels almost like a boom-or-bust situation. But if everything goes right, they could be an outstanding position group. If Sean Lee stays healthy, if Jaylon Smith takes the next step forward, if Leighton Vander Esch proves he is worthy, that is serious talent on the field. Two second-round picks that arguably had first-round talent and another first-round pick at one position group.
No one is counting any chickens before they hatch, but this linebacker crew could end up being the strength of the Cowboys defense in 2018.