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Cowboys roster breakdown: Linebacker depth is a problem

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There’s also a bit of a health concern for the Cowboys at linebacker.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In the third part of this series, we take a look at the linebacker situation for the Dallas Cowboys. They have a couple of really good starters coming back, but one of them has a nagging injury problem to fret about. The next three from last season’s depth chart are all set to enter free agency.

Currently under contract

  • Jaylon Smith
  • Leighton Vander Esch
  • Luke Gifford

That’s a lotta holes to fill to get to camp. Smith and Vander Esch are one of the most effective duos in the league - when they are both healthy. Last season, LVE was the one dealing with an issue, namely his neck. It is something that he has dealt with off and on since his college days. He had surgery in December to correct it, but neck injuries are not as easy to predict as things like ACL repairs. If he comes back 100%, the team will be in good shape. If not, however, things are more than a little dicey.

Gifford was impressive in camp, but saw limited action in the regular season,and the team probably wants him to mostly contribute on special teams.

Current free agents

  • Sean Lee
  • Joe Thomas
  • Justin March
  • Malcolm Smith
  • Chris Covington
  • Ray-Ray Armstrong

This is one position group where the solution may lie mostly with re-signing players from last season. Lee has stated he plans to play again, but is toying with testing the waters in free agency. The implication is that he is more interested in starting than being the SAM/backup player he was for Dallas last season. Frankly, that might not be the best move, as he seemed to have a bit of a resurgence in a more limited role and got through the season largely unscathed. Thomas would also be a very good player to bring back if he is not lured away by more money. Smith did well in limited action, and could be a fallback for either Lee or Thomas moving on. Covington may be considered as well.

It would be more surprising to see March come back again, but he does offer value on special teams, and just seems to hang around. Don’t count him out, but he is probably not as valuable an option as the ones in the previous paragraph.

Available outside free agents

Because the team has Mike Nolan as the defensive coordinator now, this list will include 3-4 outside linebackers (indicated by the * after the name) as well as those who play in 4-3 alignments. As in the past, this order is based on the overall rankings given at NFL Trade Rumors, and includes the age of the players.

  • Jadeveon Clowney* 27
  • Shaq Barrett* 27
  • Dante Folwer* Jr 26
  • Bud Dupree* 27
  • Matthew Judon* 27
  • Jamie Collins 30
  • Jason-Pierre Paul* 31
  • Joe Shoebert 26
  • Blake Martinez 26
  • Danny Trevathan 30

You can see why the 3-4 players were mentioned, because the list is kinda skimpy otherwise. This is limited to the top 100 players as deemed by NFLTR, of course, but the idea here is to limit things to players that are more likely to be significant contributors. Unfortunately, those 3-4 players want to be paid like edge rushers, not linebackers, which complicates things. This is not a promising list, as a result. However, keep those pass rushing types in mind, because they will show up again later in the series.

Top draft possibilities

As usual, this reflects the overall draft position assigned by CBS Sports.

  • 5 Isaiah Simmons - Clemson
  • 26 Kenneth Murray - Oklahoma
  • 41 Patrick Queen - LSU
  • 45 Zack Baun - Wisconsin
  • 65 Akeem Davis-Gaither - Appalachian State
  • 86 Troy Dye - Oregon

It’s not a big group in the top 100 names. The Cowboys may go for someone on day two, but the first round would seem highly unlikely.

This is one where the first option, and maybe the second and third as well, are those free agents who were with Dallas last season. After seeing what can be done there, the draft would likely be a better way to go than outside free agency.

Links to previous installments:

Safety

Cornerback