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Cowboys linebacker duo rated the best in the NFL, offensive line members also get a shoutout

The Cowboys struck gold when drafting Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith

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NFL: NFC Wild Card-Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

Pro Football Focus is handing out some awards for the 2018 season based on best duos. For instance, they paired up linebacker tandems to see which duo was the best in the NFL. As you might guess, the Cowboys duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith did very well. In fact, Van Jaylon topped the charts.


Smith & Vander Esch are easily the most talented pair at the position as their 84.4 and 84.9 respective grades ranked sixth and fifth among all NFL linebackers last year. In fact, Dallas is the only team with two top-10 linebackers.

Vander Esch led the team in defensive stops (62) and earned a spot on PFF’s list of top 25 players under 25 for 2019. He saw the second-most targets (90) at his position and turned that into a ninth-ranked 81.0 coverage grade.

Vander Esch concluded his rookie season as one of only four linebackers who earned grades north of 80.0 in both run defense and coverage. The former Boise State Bronco’s 54 total stops were the fifth-most among linebackers, and his five forced incompletions in coverage were good for fourth-most among rookies.

Smith rarely rushes the passer, but when he does, it’s effective. Of his 115 career pass-rush snaps, he’s generated a 27.2% win rate which leads all linebackers. Maybe one of the more underrated aspects of Smith’s tremendous 2018 regular season was how reliable he was. He played 95% of possible snaps and missed just 48 snaps all season. Not to mention, he committed only one penalty on the year, and his performance in 2018 rightly earned PFF’s award for Breakout Player of the Year.

You would be hard-pressed to find a data point that this duo does not excel in.

Among the important notes above includes the fact that Vander Esch is equally adept at pass coverage as he is at finding the ball carrier and making the tackle. That makes him a solid three-down linebacker who never needs to come off the field. Smith also has the ability to cover (as well as tackle); he was ranked 11th in coverage with an 80.6 grade. Plus, Smith is a terror when they decide to blitz him.

The Cowboys couldn’t have done any better when they drafted these two guys. They can run, they can cover, they are sure tacklers, they never have to come off the field. They are the best pair of linebackers in the league.

While the ranking of Van Jaylon that high was no surprise to Cowboys fans, PFF’s grade for top offensive guard duos is a little bit of a shocker. It goes to the greatness of Zack Martin that he and Connor Williams came in at number three in those rankings.


Overall, it was a down year for the once-formidable Cowboys offensive line, but Zack Martin remained his usual, reliable self. He was one of only four guards who earned grades of 70.0 or higher as both a run-blocker and as a pass-blocker, and his overall grade of 78.6 ranked second among the 86 qualifying players at the position. As a pass-blocker, he allowed just 21 pressures from 597 pass-blocking snaps — which was the only season of his career in which he allowed more than 20 pressures — and his 86.2 pass-blocking grade was good for fourth among qualifying guards. As a run-blocker, he recorded a 12.1% impact run-bock percentage and a 70.0 run-blocking grade — ninth and sixth among guards, respectively.

The learning curve for rookie offensive linemen is a steep one, and that’s something that Connor Williams likely realized in 2018. He ended the season with a 57.3 overall grade that ranked 54th among 86 qualifiers, but there is reason for hope. Firstly, his college production was exceptional; he earned 80.0-plus overall grades in each of his three seasons at the University of Texas, and that included a monstrous 2017 season which he ended with an elite grade of 91.3 — the third-best mark in that nation that year. Secondly, Williams had a couple of really promising outings at the NFL level in 2018. He ended Week 2 and Week 4 with pass-blocking grades of 86.8 and 88.0, respectively, and allowed just one pressure from 62 pass-blocking snaps in those two games combined.

Zack Martin is Zack Martin, and while injury slowed him just a bit last year, he is still the man. Connor Williams, on the other hand, is getting a little more love from PFF than Cowboys fans generally give him. The fact that the Cowboys essentially benched him for a brief stretch last season says a lot about his up-and-down year. Injury and lack of size/strength bogged down his performance. The good news? He has reportedly bulked up this offseason and recognizes the areas he needs to improve in. He also has some real competition as Connor McGovern, the Cowboys new rookie, is waiting in the wings and already has an NFL-body.

The future may not be at guard for Williams, but in 2019 it will be. We’ll see if he can hold up his end of this ranking and move the duo of Martin/Williams higher when PFF does the rankings again next offseason.

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