If you look at the types of things being said by Dallas Cowboys fans a year ago, then you’d easily find tons of praise for the team’s linebacking group. Coming off of Leighton Vander Esch’s rookie season and Jaylon Smith’s breakout year, there was thought that linebacker was ascending as one of the most talented position groups on the team. Fast forward through the season and no position disappointed more than the one in the middle of the defense.
To be fair, Leighton Vander Esch dealt with injury throughout his sophomore campaign, but Jaylon Smith, after signing a contract extension just before the season began, regressed. By season’s end people were generally questioning whether the linebackers were of supreme talent.
PFF listed the Cowboys linebackers as the second-best in the NFL
For the second year in a row the Cowboys were able to keep Sean Lee in spite of Leighton Vander Esch’s presence as the starter at his position. Collectively, there is undeniably a certain level of depth, but it didn’t exactly live up to any sort of hype last year.
PFF have been ranking various position groups as of late and in doing the linebacker groups across the league they feel quite confident in the one that practices at The Star. They have the Cowboys as the second-best linebacker group in the entire NFL.
In 2018, the Cowboys had the second-highest graded linebacking corps in the league (80.2), and they dropped to 11th with a 66.2 grade last season. They enter 2020 with one of the best units in the league as the corps remains intact, led by Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch was limited to just 510 snaps last season and took a step back with a 58.5 grade after a 2018 campaign in which he posted an 84.4 mark that ranked fifth in the league. Expect Vander Esch to return closer to his 2018 form, as he missed 14.5% of his tackles last season compared to just 8.9% in 2018.
Smith ranked right behind Vander Esch with an 84.0 overall grade, sixth-best in 2018, but he regressed last season with a 70.2 grade that ranked 19th. He has recovered nicely from a knee injury that dropped him to the second round of the 2016 draft, and he’s now one of the league’s best all-around linebackers. The Cowboys also return Sean Lee, who has become more of a role player at this point in his career but still brings experience and leadership to keep the unit together. Lee is coming off the two lowest grades of his career — a 57.8 mark in 2018 and a 61.5 grade last season.
Joe Thomas adds veteran depth and posted a career-high 64.4 grade last season on 246 snaps. The Cowboys feature one of the best one-two punches at linebacker in Vander Esch and Smith, and they need the duo to get back to its 2018 form to maximize the defense’s potential.
It is possible that we are too close to the subject here and therefore are being a bit harder than most on the Dallas Cowboys. While most fans are willing to see what Leighton Vander Esch can do with presumed health this season there is definitely a lower level of belief in his running mate Jaylon Smith.
Ultimately that really is the issue as it seems to stand entering camp. LVE was hindered by injuries last season and Smith was hindered by a lack of the former. Vander Esch is in many ways the key to the Cowboys defense, and perhaps he can help the group as a whole find their proper footing in 2020.