For any defense that primarily features four down linemen, rarely are there three linebackers on the field at the same time anymore. With how frequently teams feature three or more receivers per play - the league average for 11 personnel in 2019 was 55% - nickel and dime packages have effectively become the new base defense, leaving linebackers out in the cold.
Since the Cowboys have both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, their two starting linebackers are set for the foreseeable future. In 2019, veteran Sean Lee filled the role of third linebacker in base formations and came in handy when he had to return to a starting role after Vander Esch got injured. Lee had double-digit tackles in two of his final five games, and had flashes where he looked like his old self. But Lee’s future is in question as of now, although it seems like he’ll definitely still be playing football.
Joe Thomas, a special teams leader who also saw an increase in defensive snaps the last two years in Dallas, is also about to see his contract expire. That leaves Luke Gifford and Chris Covington as the only other linebackers under contract behind Smith and Vander Esch. Those two players have a combined 28 career defensive snaps to their names, highlighting the need for Dallas to at least bolster their linebacker depth.
The Cowboys should look for more than that; they need a starting-caliber linebacker on their roster behind Smith and Vander Esch. Both Lee and Thomas fit that bill, and keeping either would do nicely. But Lee, much like fellow Cowboys legend Jason Witten, might be evaluating options elsewhere, like following his former head coach to New York, and Thomas could very well get a better offer somewhere else.
The reason the Cowboys need to find a linebacker capable of filling a starting role largely comes down to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Yes, there are valid health concerns about both Smith and Vander Esch and having great depth is obviously ideal, but Nolan wants to install a multiple 4-3 defense. That could mean a varying degree of roles for these linebackers.
We already broke down the split mug front that senior defensive assistant George Edwards could introduce, which would see both Smith and Vander Esch up in the A gaps, and an earlier film breakdown of the multiple 4-3 Nolan ran in Atlanta gives some more clues. It’s safe to say Nolan will likely look to use Smith as a blitzer even more, and he could potentially bring him down on the line of scrimmage as a stand up defensive end.
If Nolan does indeed use Smith in this way, just as part of a package instead of a full-time position swap, that would create the need for another linebacker next to Vander Esch. In nickel situations, that’d just be whoever comes off in normal nickel packages, but as established already there’s not a clear cut third linebacker right now.
Again, either Lee or Thomas could fill this role admirably, and there are some free agent options out there, too. Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard have both been productive starters for a while but, nearing the end of their careers, might entertain a role like this. Darron Lee and Reggie Ragland have both struggled to live up to their draft hype and could be looking to prove themselves, and AJ Klein has familiarity with Nolan, his position coach the last three years.
There are also some options in the draft, although Dallas will probably prefer to spend their draft capital on more immediate positions like cornerback, safety, and defensive tackle. Still, there are plenty of options for the Cowboys and even though it’s not a role they should necessarily invest too much into, it could be a vital role if Nolan is serious about creating a varied, multiple look on defense.