This time last year, all it took to make any Cowboys enthusiast salivate was to paint the picture of a healthy Jaylon Smith lining up on Sunday next to the All-World linebacker Sean Lee. We saw glimpses, but were robbed by injuries to Lee and a lengthy recovery process for Jaylon. However, that was then, this is now. It’s time to rev up the hype train again and make an addition to the party. Can you imagine how much fun this defense will be when Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch all take the field together?
Say what? We know that this team, and most others, spend a lot of time in nickel or dime formations but we could see some wrinkles this year. That’s because Kris Richard, a man that Marinelli has long admired, is selling that they finally have the talents to make it work. We’ve seen a base defense before with a WILL, MIKE, and SAM. What we haven’t seen is the pedigree of three outstanding athletes such as what the Cowboys now have lining up together.
There is just so much talent between the three of those guys that it’s only natural to want to see it all manifest into one explosive package. Each of these three guys have varying skill sets but the combination of the three could be lethal. Let’s dive into what each guy adds to the equation and their individual plans this season:
The importance of Sean Lee is well documented. Lee is this defense’s cerebral assassin that makes everything possible. In fact, it’s unusual for the weak-side linebacker being as imperative to the team’s success like Lee is for the Cowboys. To the Cowboys credit, they made moves this offseason to be less Lee-dependent, but he’s still a huge asset. Especially when it comes anticipating how an offense will attack and adjust throughout a given game. There’s very few in today’s NFL that are able to read and react as well as Sean Lee does. Like any great player, he’s able to raise the level of play within his teammates too.
Lee’s as good as he is because he’s got a great respect for detail and incredible memorization skills. Marinelli has long stressed Lee’s position as a the guy you want to funnel the defense through. Lee is a resident of the film room but so are a lot of guys in the league. The difference is Lee’s ability to not only retain that information and bring it to gameday, but also looking for the nuances in an offense. He then commits their tendencies to memory and teaches his findings to his teammates. That’s invaluable leadership in a locker room where the average age is 24. Though Lee’s health is always something to monitor, his value on the field is undeniable, he’s the epitome of an All-Pro.
Leighton Vander Esch
The plan for Vander Esch so far has been to rotate him in with Jaylon Smith at middle linebacker but he’s going to get plenty of playing time. When Vander Esch was drafted, he was often referred to as an ascending player with explosive traits. Where he’s intrigued guys like Bryan Broaddus is with his outstanding abilities in coverage. Vander Esch has the skill-set that NFL teams look for in a MIKE in today’s game. He possesses great size but also has the agility to cover sideline-to-sideline. There are a lot of teams like the Falcons that have began using smaller and quicker linebackers as a result of an evolved short passing game. There just aren’t a lot of big linebackers in the draft these days that have the explosive agility to keep up with these changes. Leighton Vander Esch is that rare athlete that does move well for a big man.
As a rookie, he’s surely going to make some mistakes but as noted above, Sean Lee will help him be in position and understand the details. Vander Esch is a key addition to a front seven that is developing playmakers. The pass rush has taken some big strides forward but fortifying the linebacker spot was necessary to take the next step on defense while helping a very young secondary. The athletically gifted Vander Esch will be a welcome addition in the middle of a defense that struggled to cover last season.
Last but certainly not least, let’s look at Jaylon Smith. He’s the Cowboys ultimate wildcard because he’s going to be a versatile weapon. He’ll continue to rotate with Vander Esch at middle linebacker but he’s got another role pegged for him as a pass rusher. The Cowboys will be able to set up exotic linebacker blitzes now that they have the personnel to get home. Toward the end of last season, they started to use Jaylon Smith on linebacker blitzes and it worked well. Now that Jaylon Smith is playing without an AFO brace, he’s inching closer to the athletic freak the Cowboys believed he would be once he was healthy.
You would hard pressed to find a more explosive athlete on the defense than Smith if fully recovered. He’s got the power to shed blockers and the agility to close on the ball carrier. Jaylon is a special type of player and he gives the Cowboys defense another wrinkle. Stephen Jones always mentioned 2018 as the year for Jaylon Smith knowing that he had a long recovery ahead. Every day past that injury, he gains more explosiveness and his change of direction improves. Going forward, Jaylon Smith is going to be a major catalyst in the success of the Cowboys defense.
When you have three linebackers as talented as this group is, the defense can grow exponentially in a short period of time. There are so many things to like about what the Cowboys have created at the linebacker spot. Perhaps the best part of it all is the opportunities they have created for this defense to take that next step and become something truly great.