While we wait for training camp to get underway, we’re taking a look at all the position groups for the Dallas Cowboys, with the focus on whether the team was successful in improving during the offseason. You can find the links for the earlier parts of this series at the end of this one. So far, all the positions discussed have shown us that the team took positive steps to make them better. But now we get to the linebackers, and it is a unit where the team really did very little to improve the situation. Of course, there is one thing that may be somewhat comforting. This group didn’t need any improvement.
The Cowboys have one of the best linebackers in the league, and he is only in his second year.
Now, pair Leighton Vander Esch with Jaylon Smith, and there is good case for them being the top off-the-ball linebacking duo in the NFL. You can’t do much better than that. Right?
Oh, wait, let’s move Sean Lee to the SAM spot so we can get him on the field at the same time as Vander Esch and Smith, while also limiting his snaps to try and keep him healthy.
It is an embarrassment of riches, right?
But we aren’t done. The Cowboys also have Joe Thomas, who can back up all three of the linebacker positions.
Joe Thomas is one of the better backup LBs in the NFL and deserves more respect from DAL fans. pic.twitter.com/33KkG8rjjK— John Owning (@JohnOwning) June 24, 2019
Whew. And while we are on the subject of backups, Justin March-Lillard is no slouch, either.
That is why the only linebacker additions the team made this year were four UDFAs, one of whom, Justin Phillips, has already been released to make room for fullback Ryan Yurachek on the 90 man roster. It leaves Luke Gifford, Nate Hall, and Andrew Dowell competing with Chris Covington for the sixth spot or trying to earn a role as a seventh linebacker. That latter path may be the best one for them since the team likes to carry seven to bolster the special teams. The only loss this offseason was Damien Wilson, who had not proven to be of much value.
So the summation is that there was little the team could do to upgrade linebacker, especially in light of the needs elsewhere.
That is a very short recap of what the team did and where it stands, but this is a good place to discuss an implication the new role for Lee has. In the pass-heavy NFL, the so-called base defense has actually taken a back seat to the nickel package, which takes a linebacker off the field to add another defensive back. That is something teams have to do because linebackers typically are a bit of a detriment in pass coverage, so a slot corner is usually brought in. But Lee, Smith, and Vander Esch are all very good in pass coverage, especially when they are on a tight end or running back. Having all three of them means that the Cowboys can stick with a true 4-3 alignment and still defend the pass well. It also makes it harder to cross them up with a run. We still have to see what Kris Richard has up his sleeve, but it would not be at all surprising to see more defensive plays where all three linebackers stay on the field. That is also valuable when the opponent goes into a hurry-up, since the substitution doesn’t have to be made, allowing the team to be better set for the play.
Maybe you can argue that the move with Lee is itself a form of improvement, but the core of the linebacking group is still going to be the five returning players. Covington has to fight off a challenge, but he can do so by himself being a contributor on ST.
There really isn’t much to analyze here. Once Lee decided to come back for at least another season, the Cowboys knew they were set at linebacker. They made no significant moves to improve. Anything they could have done would have been marginal, at best.
Here are the links to the earlier parts of this series.