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Why the Cowboys’ plans at linebacker will help dictate their entire offseason

Whether it’s no change or a big change, the Cowboys’ plans at linebacker will have a ripple effect.

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Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Linebacker is one of the Dallas Cowboys’ most uncertain position groups. Currently, the Cowboys have four linebackers on their roster - Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford. There are a lot of question marks among that group of players.

There’s a chance the Cowboys could bring back one of their three linebacker free agents. Veterans Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, and Justin March will hit the open market, but there’s a chance we’ve seen the last of these three in Dallas as players.

The Cowboys have spent large investments at the linebacker spot, one in the form of a $68 million extension, and the other as a top 20 draft pick. Unfortunately for Dallas, neither of these investments are paying dividends as hoped.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys’ top two linebackers both had the worst seasons of their careers in 2020. The polarizing Smith finished with a 54.2 defensive grade, 16 points lower than what he registered in 2019. The former first-round pick Vander Esch played in just 10 games, recording a defensive grade below 55 (50.6) on the season as well.

Due to the nature of his large contract, Smith is the much more criticized of the two. After Smith challenged anyone who believed he may not be with the team in 2021 to “watch the film”, Bob Sturm of The Athletic did just that. He wrote an in-depth piece breaking down all of Smith’s struggles. Here’s just a couple of plays he broke down in the piece.

It’s safe to say the film spoke for itself, but not in the way Smith believed it would. At the end of Sturm’s article, he got two coaches summaries of Smith’s play. Here’s what they had to say.

Coach 1: Overall, I look at 54 and feel like he has an incomplete understanding of how the defense works … almost like someone has coached him to just go run and be the best athlete. He seems to overreact to things that are not his responsibility, and he under-reacts to things that are fundamental to his own success in the scheme.

Coach 3: Playing linebacker is more than being able to blitz and cover receivers down the field. It is about taking on blocks, shedding them and tackling the ballcarrier. It is about living for contact and blowing up an iso. Jaylon wears the green dot, and you are telling me he has a hard time reading keys in the running game? I know I seem to pile on Jaylon a lot, but this is at the feet of Jerry and Stephen. This kid may have been an OK pro at 100 percent, but take away what he relies upon as his fastball and you have someone searching for answers. No wonder he jumps at every crosser he sees; his legs don’t work so he is guessing.

Enough piling on Smith, for now. Let’s talk about the other high-profile linebacker, the man formerly known as “The Wolf Hunter.” Vander Esch did not do too much hunting in 2020. The former first-round pick was once again unable to stay on the field, and even when he was, he was not producing close to the level the Cowboys need him to. Vander Esch had a PFF defensive grade below 55 in five of his 10 starts.

To be honest, if you were to go back and nitpick every one of Vander Esch’s snaps in 2020, you probably could find a pretty good number of plays where he looked just as bad as Smith did. Smith has many more out there, because he played 1,026 snaps to Vander Esch’s 460 (according to Pro Football Reference), and also is overall more scrutinized because he is making the big bucks.

So, now what? What’s the solution to fix the Cowboys’ woes at linebacker? Well, for starters, the Cowboys’ plans this offseason will be dictated by answering one question. Does defensive coordinator Dan Quinn believe he can truly fix Jaylon Smith? If the answer to that question is yes, the Cowboys likely select a mid-round linebacker and bring in a cheap, veteran free agent. However, if the answer is no, things get much more interesting.

First off, no one is going to trade for Smith. With the 25-year-old linebacker's injury history and poor performance, no one is going to want to take on that massive contract. A trade also would affect the Cowboys’ cap situation negatively. K.D. Drummond of The Cowboys Wire gave an excellent explanation of this in his article back in November.

When a player is traded, those cap hits accelerate into the next year. Dallas would’ve saved his remaining 2020 base salary and wiped future base salaries off the books, but that $9.4 million would be on next year’s cap as dead money.

Smith’s base salary for 2021 is $7.2 million, so the club would save that in cash, but he’d take up $9.4 million in space. He is currently on the books to take up $9.8 million (base salary plus $2.6 million in bonus allocation), so trading him would result in just $400,000 in cap savings for next season, and the Cowboys wouldn’t have the player.

With a trade out of the picture, Dallas would have to outright cut Smith if they want to part ways. The one way to do this and not really affect their cap this season is to make it a June 1st release. This what a June 1 cut of Smith would look like cap-wise.

So if the Cowboys want to release Smith and designate him one of their two June 1 cuts, they would wipe his $7.2 salary off the books and only have to deal with his 2020 $2.6 million bonus allocation as dead money. They’d save the entire $7.2 million off of their cap.

Now, that money wouldn’t be available right away, the team couldn’t use it until the June 2 date. Any player released after that date has their unallocated bonus money divided up between the current year and the next year. It’s another rule in place strictly to benefit the player and give them the best opportunity to sign with another club. This is clearly something the Cowboys would do for Smith, even without the fifth-league-day clause in his deal. In this scenario, Dallas would have $6.8 million of dead money on the 2022 cap, which will hopefully bounce back from having gate revenue in 2021 and the lucrative new TV deals the league is waiting on.

If Smith was cut, the Cowboys would desperately need someone to step in and fill his starting role. Without tons of quality linebackers on the open market, where would they turn for help? Well, they are guaranteed to have Vander Esch for one more season, potentially two if they pick up his fifth-year option, so he’s a lock to be one starter next season.

But would a Smith release open up drafting a linebacker once again in round one? Could Dallas potentially trade down, to say pick 15-20, and select Micah Parsons or Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah? Both are incredibly talented, but also have some question marks for different reasons.

Ultimately, no matter what they decide, the Cowboys’ plans for the future of the linebacker position will help dictate how their offseason goes. They may run it back with the duo of Smith-Vander Esch and hope they have a bounce-back year. Or, they may try to cut their losses and bring in some new faces at the position. If they go the latter, they will have to bring in a starting-caliber linebacker in the draft or free agency.

Regardless of which way the decision goes, the linebacker spot is going to be a debate for Dallas this offseason, for better or for worse.