Prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys drafted a linebacker for 12 straight years. When the Cowboys used their first-round selection on Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas got back to their ways of drafting linebackers. Dallas did not stop with drafting just one linebacker, in the fifth round, they decided to double-dip at the linebacker position and select Chris Covington out of Indiana.
In this draft, there was a trend of the Cowboys opting for players who could play multiple positions and have innate football intelligence. With Covington, that is what the Cowboys got. A 21-year-old from Chicago, it took Covington until his junior season to become an impact player for the Hoosiers. The main reason for his lack of progression is due to the transition he took from playing quarterback to linebacker.
In high school, Covington was recruited as a quarterback. In fact, he played some snaps at quarterback during his freshman season. Once he switched to linebacker during his sophomore season, it was clear that his football intelligence from being the signal-caller on offense could translate to the defensive unit’s signal-caller.
That hope came into fruition during his senior campaign when Covington racked up 85 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and three sacks in 12 games. Next to Tegray Scales, another talented NFL prospect who was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, the duo was huge for Indiana’s defense in 2017.
While Covington comes to Dallas as an inexperienced linebacker, he also comes with unique instincts that could translate to quite a versatile role with the Cowboys. With the additions of Vander Esch and Covington from the draft, the Cowboys’ linebacker corps has become even more crowded. Prior to the draft, the Cowboys had signed Joe Thomas in free agency to be in the mix for the third linebacker position, knowing that Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith were the top two.
With Vander Esch being drafted in the first round, it is clear that Dallas’ plan is to sprinkle Thomas and other backups like Damien Wilson and Justin March-Lillard into the rotation. Knowing that, the question of what Covington will do from the get-go in his debut season is a fair one.
In recent years, the Cowboys have made it clear that they prefer drafting players who can contribute on special teams. It was the reason why guys like Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier were so valuable in their early days in Dallas. Since then, Heath has developed into a key player on defense and Frazier is making his way there. Perhaps Covington’s trajectory can be similar.
Dallas saw enough flashes out of Covington in his senior season when he was a starter. Even in the pre-draft process, there were times Covington continued to flash. In the NFLPA Bowl, Covington had six tackles in sparing minutes in just the first half.
On tape, Covington shows more potential and natural athletic ability than his combine performance. At the combine, he ran a mediocre 4.73 40-yard dash. However, he performed much better in the bench press event by putting up 23 reps of 225 pounds, good enough for fifth out of all linebackers.
While the Cowboys are not getting a player with elite athleticism, they are getting a player with a blue-collar attitude who will come in, compete, and try to make noise on special teams. Linebackers in today’s NFL are molded to play coverage against both tight ends and quicker wide receivers. Given his tape, his measurables, and his lack of playing experience, that will not be where Covington will best perform at the next level.
Covington’s best bet in his rookie season will be to learn the ropes and develop a rapport with Lee, Smith, and new linebackers coach Ben Bloom. He needs to learn and experience the NFL in hopes of being a contributor on defense down the road. In his initial season, if he makes the 53-man roster, it will almost certainly be because they believe he can help on special teams.