You might have noticed that the NFL is a pretty rough sport. Players get hurt on the regular, the lineup you throw out there one week is almost certainly going to be different the next week as players shuffle in and out of the trainer’s room. In other words, if you don’t have depth in the NFL, you’re sunk.
The linebacker group comes in third. In the modern NFL, you really only count two linebackers as starters if you run a 4-3 defense. The Cowboys have their two starters, and they have a pretty dynamic third linebacker.
3) Dallas Cowboys linebackers
Jason Garrett’s on-again, off-again record as the lone-star commander might shine a bit brighter had he the luxury of snakebitten Sean Lee as a component part rather than the backbone of his defense over the past decade. Now that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have emerged as sideline-to-sideline marauders reminiscent of Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in recent years, Garrett can afford to choose his spots with Lee, now a premium insurance policy alongside the dynamic, young duo. At their best, Smith and Vander Esch shrink the field to the 10 yards between the line of scrimmage and the first-down marker, smothering opposing playmakers. We could include QB nightmare DeMarcus Lawrence and the restocked defensive line here, but the linebackers deserve the limelight after putting the clamps on high-flying offenses late last season.
Sean Lee is the key here. We all know that when healthy, he’s one of the best around thanks to a brilliant mixture of athleticism, instinct and football IQ. Unfortunately, his health can never be relied upon fully, so much so that he is now basically in a reserve role (strong-side starter who will probably see around 30% of the snaps). The good news is Lee can play any of the linebacker positions and serves as a very high-quality reserve. The Cowboys also have Joe Thomas, he doesn’t get a mention in the article but he has shown he can contribute when called upon.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are studs. They are easily in the discussion as the best duo of off the ball linebackers in the league. Sean Lee would be in those discussions if he could have stayed healthy, but now he serves as part-time starter and super-sub. Joe Thomas is added insurance. The Cowboys are deep at the middle level of their defense.
Following right behind the linebackers in the rankings is the Cowboys’ offensive line. Last year, the Cowboys has some issues with injury at the line, but in some ways that increased their depth this year.
4) Dallas Cowboys offensive line
It’s hard to blame the naysayers, considering Dallas’ tendency to follow playoff campaigns with lost seasons, but this team is simply too talented in the trenches to fall apart, barring a plague of injuries. Just as the Bill Polian-era Colts doubled down on weapons for Peyton Manning each draft, the Cowboys pour resources into their vaunted offensive line -- the team’s identity since Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray gave way to Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as the future. Former All-Pro center Travis Frederick remains on track to return from last year’s grueling battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, pushing veteran stand-in Joe Looney into a reserve role. After watching second-round rookie Connor Williams struggle as one of the league’s youngest starters last year, the team’s brain trust pulled the trigger in the third round on Penn State’s Connor McGovern, one of the draft’s top guard prospects, as a fallback option. If left tackle Tyron Smith returns to the same level of dominance that right guard Zack Martin displays year-in and year-out, this group might just live up to the hype as the NFL’s showpiece among position groups.
Last year exposed the Cowboys line, but it also moved it to create depth. Joe Looney had a pretty decent season as the starting center, now the team knows that he is a dependable depth piece that they can use in the interior if needed. Connor Williams’ rocky rookie season led to the drafting of Connor McGovern, who looks like he could be part of the equation down the line but adds insurance for this year. Cam Fleming proved adept enough to play for Tyron Smith in case of injury and keep things afloat.
With Travis Frederick expected to return, and Connor Williams having a year under his belt plus some more pounds on his frame, the Cowboys’ starting offensive line should return to form. But if they have to dip into their depth, they should do okay.
We’ve spent some time detailing how the Cowboys have built a very strong roster. They are young at most positions, they have some of the top players in the league (some of them at very key spots), and they have built some solid depth at different places. If this team fails to return to the playoffs and make some noise this season, the coaching staff should be the ones to receiver the lion’s share of the blame.