Continuing our series of looking at positional groups. Today, we look at arguably the strength of the Dallas Cowboys defense.
It was not too long ago that the Cowboys fell apart whenever Sean Lee went down with injury. Lee was the emotional leader of the team in addition to one of the better players at his position across the league. When #50 went down, opposing teams smelled blood and attacked.
Now, that is not really the case. In fact, some are questioning just how much the former Penn State defender will play this upcoming season. While there is no denying that Lee can be an impact player on the field, his history of missing time due to injury is widely known.
Additionally, Lee has been passed up by two young, hungry backers as the top linebacker on the team. Leighton Vander Esch eclipsed nearly all expectations with his stellar rookie season, while Jaylon Smith has miraculously recovered from what some thought was a career-ending injury before his professional life began.
The defensive line is led by sack master DeMarcus Lawrence, and has since added Robert Quinn through trade, and the defensive backfield is anchored by Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown, but there is a strong argument to be made that the linebacker position is the strength of Rod Marinelli’s and Kris Richard’s defense.
Leighton Vander Esch
Leighton Vander Esch was playing eight-man football during his high school career and is now one of the top young defenders in the National Football League. The former Boise State linebacker, neck-roll and all, took the Cowboys defense by storm en route to creating havoc as a pass rusher in addition to a productive run defender.
LVE’s rookie season produced 140 total tackles, a pair of interceptions, and a big tackle that helped win the first game against the Eagles in Philly:
No.4 Leighton Vander Esch single handily blows up a screen pass against the Eagles pic.twitter.com/s0Cza9umtW— ( •_•)(•_• ) (@comedy_motion) January 15, 2019
That tackle was a huge factor in the Cowboys turning its season around. Dallas dropped a home game against the Titans the previous week and desperately needed a victory over the rival Eagles. Number 55 came up big that night (13 tackles, one TFL, one interception) and he has a very bright future in silver and blue.
At one point in time, Jaylon Smith was viewed as one of the five best players in the 2016 draft class. At another point, many feared that Smith would never play on the gridiron ever again.
Fast forward to three years later, and Jaylon Smith is making an inspiring comeback. Smith sat out his first season due to injury, but has now blossomed into a young star for the Cowboys.
Jaylon Smith 7-point play pic.twitter.com/Ht3OuqOfZi— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 9, 2018
Smith made a whopping 121 stops (82 solo), six TFLs, four sacks, six QB hits, and a pair of forced fumbles in 2018. There is a chance that Smith never reaches his 100% ceiling that he had pre-injury, but if last season was any indication, his stock is on the rise.
As mentioned above, the Cowboys are in a much safer situation than in past years. If Sean Lee were to go down — like he did in 2018 — Dallas still has two young stars to pick up the slack.
Still, though, Lee provides leadership and experience that is difficult to find in this league which should benefit both LVE and Smith as they grow and mature.
In seven games last season, Lee made 30 stops and was credited for 0.5 sacks in a role behind the two young studs. This season, Lee will be playing the SAM linebacker role. Lee discussed what he is expecting with Todd Archer:
Lee will see yet another change as well when camp begins in July, with the Cowboys moving him to the strong side (SAM) to finally upgrade that portion of the LB corps, and there’s one thing in particular he’s working to adjust to as he moves to the opposite side of the field.
”The situations,” he said, via Todd Archer of ESPN. “Some of them are very similar to what I’ve done in the past where I’m off the ball and able to run, sometimes on the ball. I try to pride myself on being versatile, being able to adapt, being able to play different positions and learn them and hopefully become an expert at it. I have a ton of help. I love being out there, and I think I’ll improve as I go.”
”...Hey, I’m 10 years into this, but I still think I have a lot to provide. I’m still working to get better every day.”
Lee is not the player that he once was, but a healthy Sean Lee is a big addition to any defense.
Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, and Chris Covington will all try to add depth and provide snaps for Ben Bloom and company. Thomas played in 10 games and was credited with 14 tackles after coming over from the Green Bay Packers and Covington, a sixth-round selection in last year’s draft, is looking to make an impact in his sophomore season.
As we all know, the NFL game is unpredictable, so it is key to have guys ready in case somebody goes down.