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Cowboys 2018 season review: Grading the linebackers

What’s the final grade for the Cowboys young linebacking corps?

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NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After each game during the Cowboys 2018 season we posted grades on each position group. Now we’re handing out final grades. We covered the secondary last week and this week we look at the linebacker unit.

First, let’s recognize that unlike the team’s secondary unit, the Cowboys have invested significant resources in the linebacker group:

The Cowboys top trio of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee were all premium draft picks, taken in the first or second round. While Smith and Vander Esch are still on relatively cheap rookie deals, Sean Lee had the third highest cap hit on the team in 2018 ($10.1M). Lee’s inability to stay on the field severely compromised the team’s 2017 season and the Cowboys aggressively addressed that situation in the 2018 draft. At the time, it seemed like a move that was looking more towards 2019 and beyond but the decision proved prescient as Lee was again injured and his play declined in the 2018 season. As a result, Smith and LVE are now the entrenched starters going into 2019.


Smith and Vander Esch combined for 261 tackles which is a monster number for a linebacker tandem. LVE’s 140 tackles ranked third in the entire NFL (behind fellow rookie Darius Leonard and Green Bay’s Blake Martinez), earning him second-team All-Pro honors. This, despite LVE starting only 11 games.

By comparison, Sean Lee topped 104 tackles exactly once in his career - in 2016 when he earned All-Pro honors with 145 tackles.

Jaylon Smith continued his miraculous return from a devastating injury many thought had ended his career. One of the unappreciated accomplishments of Smith has been his ability to stay healthy. He has now started 34 games in two seasons. Many athletes returning from major injury will suffer nagging, soft-tissue injuries when they return. Smith, instead, has been plug-and-play reliable. His 120 tackles doesn’t capture all he contributed as he frequently rushed the passer on passing downs (negating the ability to record tackles on such plays).

Luckily, splash play statistics do reflect Smith’s contributions from rushing the passer. Bob Sturm of The Athletic keeps track of splash plays and I’ve charted out his numbers from the season:

Here we see Smith’s impact as he recorded virtually every type of splash play possible:

  • Fumbles caused: 2
  • Fumbles recovered: 2
  • Sacks: 4
  • Passes defensed: 5
  • Runs stuffed: 3
  • Holding penalties drawn: 2
  • Fourth-down stops: 1 (he actually had two, one against Houston and one against Philadelphia but I’m using Sturm’s stats here)

Finally, he recorded the team’s only defensive touchdown of the season on this scintillating play against Tampa Bay:

In total, Smith recorded 23 splash plays on the season or about 1.5 per game. Vander Esch claimed 18 splash plays and, due to fewer snaps played, had a similar snaps per splash (42) to Smith (44).

Not all splash plays are equal. An interception is obviously worth more than a tipped pass and a fourth-down stop more valuable than a run stuff. Let’s look at the unit’s splash points:

The splash points again illustrate Smith’s dynamic contributions. His 30 splash points ranked second on the team (DeMarcus Lawrence led with 51) and was 13 full points over Jeff Heath’s third ranked 17 splash points.

LVE ranked fourth with 16 splash points, driven by his two interceptions. Those turnovers helped him earn NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in November. In short, both LVE and Jaylon Smith contributed play after play, evidenced by their tackle numbers, but they also were wreaking havoc creating splash plays that can be game-changers.

Here’s how it looks in chart form:

We see that on a per-play basis all the linebackers were making plays. There’s serious reasons for fans to be optimistic about this group, particularly Smith and Vander Esch. Both are under 25 and only entering the prime of their careers. The prospect of these two patrolling sideline-to-sideline together for the next 4+ years, frankly, leaves me drooling.

Just a reminder of some of their contributions:

One thing to consider when evaluating this (or any) group is what resources has the team invested in this group? The following shows each player’s:

  • Draft value (using commonly defined values found at places like Ourlads Scouting Services)
  • 2018 salary cap number
  • Number of defensive snaps played
  • Percent of defensive snaps played
  • Approximate Value as defined by Pro Football Reference (for an in-depth insight into this metric and it’s strengths and weaknesses I encourage you to read One Cool Customer’s great post)

We also see what PFR’s AV metric thought of the group. The following table (shout out to OCC) is a useful guide when looking at AV:

As we see, PFR’s AV metric graded both Smith and LVE to be at the high end of the “starter quality” range. As AV is a counting metric, they’re really saying LVE played at an All Pro/Pro Bowl level. This corresponds with the eye test which certainly left most of us thinking both were Pro Bowl caliber players. Having two players in the same position unit ranking so high is a luxury; having both of them on rookie contracts is a lavish luxury.

Damien Wilson and Sean Lee should not go unmentioned here. They both contributed given their opportunities.

Weekly Grades

Now we’ll look at the unit’s weekly grades as assigned by yours truly. Obviously, these grades are only one man’s opinion and your mileage may vary. Here’s the grades and a “points” system I developed for this effort:

There’s a lot to like here, unfortunately, the season ended on a bummer performance for this unit. The group enjoyed all As and Bs for most of the season (except for a 2-game blip against Washington and Tennessee) until heading to December for a week 15 game.

But in the final month of the season the linebackers twice struggled mightily. First, in what should have been a warning of what could come, the Colts simply steamrolled the entire Cowboys’ defense and the LB unit was a prime culprit. Then again in the team’s playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams this unit simply had no answers.

In both cases opponent’s simply ran at will and the young linebackers never seemed to catch their balance. Sometimes they read plays wrong; sometimes they reacted too slow, sometimes they got beat one-on-one. It kind of felt like these were students who worked hard and progressed throughout the year but then came up short on the final exam.

Final Grade: B

If we average the linebacker’s play over the entire season we come up with a grade of 3.5, which is right between a B and a B-. I’ll round up in this case and give this very young, promising group a well-deserved B.

Going into 2019 it’s clear the LVE/Smith duo are the top two backers who should expect to be on the field for virtually every snap. It would be nice to have Sean Lee as insurance but to do so he’ll have to take a significant pay cut (something I think is very possible).

I assume Damien Wilson has played his last play as a Cowboy as I expect he’ll attract a significant contract the Cowboys will not be willing to match. I expect Joe Thomas - who impressed in preseason but saw little regular season action - to be back next season on an inexpensive deal.

Chris Covington, drafted in 2018, should also be in the mix. I also expect the Cowboys will draft a LBer in the fourth through seventh rounds because you pretty much always need such players as depth and for special teams.

He’s a summary of the two units we’ve looked at thus far, graded by week:

And here’s an overview of these two units:

You see the difference in resources invested as the Cowboys’ secondary ranked dead last in NFL spending and also had small draft investment.

Next up, we’ll look at the defensive line.

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