When taking a look at the needs for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021, cornerback, defensive tackle, safety, and linebacker are four of the biggest needs on the team. As you can tell, the Cowboys need a lot of help on defense. It should burn that linebacker is such a big need just two years after giving Jaylon Smith a nice payday, and spending a premium first-round pick on Leighton Vander Esch in 2018.
But the truth is, it is, and the Cowboys would be wise to use the 2021 NFL Draft to add talent and depth to the linebacker room. But if we learned anything from the 2018 NFL Draft, it’s you really don’t want to draft off-the-ball linebackers high (there’s always exceptions to the rule, though I don’t see one in 2021).
Thankfully, the 2021 NFL Draft provides plenty of really solid day three linebacker options, and the Cowboys should be really digging into some of these names.
Jamin Davis | Kentucky | RS Junior | 6’4” 224 lbs
It took until 2020 for Davis to crack the starting lineup for the Kentucky Wildcats, but boy was it a breakout year for the RS Junior. Davis, listed at 6’4”, 224 lbs, is an athletic, rangy, long off-the-ball linebacker with the ability to cover large areas of the field in zone coverage, and provide strong man-coverage skills from the WILL linebacker spot. Davis lives around the football, and shows off his impressive speed when defending the run sideline-to-sideline. Davis grew as a downhill run-defender as the season developed, and shined in coverage with three interceptions, and three PBU’s. He still has some developing to do as a downhill player, and being more physical when taking on blocks, but the range, length, instincts, and athleticism he plays with is very intriguing.
Jamin Davis coverage against Pitts. Play-call puts him in a tough spot, but he does well. pic.twitter.com/DpqOist0hI— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) February 22, 2021
Tony Fields II | West Virginia | Senior | 6’1” 222 lbs
Unlike Jamin Davis, Tony Fields II has a ton of experience in college football, seeing action in 46 games, starting all of them at Arizona (37) and West Virginia (9). Fields II has experience at both inside linebacker and outside linebacker throughout his years at Arizona and West Virginia. Fields II is a very high-quality coverage-defender, with sideline-to-sideline range. Similar to Davis, Fields II has very good speed, length, and plays the position with high level athletic traits. While there are still some issues with a linebacker of his size taking on blocks, the speed, instincts, and physicality when in coverage and when attacking ball carriers is impressive.
Studying 2019 tape of LB Tony Fields II while at Arizona (now with WVU & heading to @seniorbowl)— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) November 28, 2020
This is one of the most underrated/under-hyped players in the country
Fiesty 6’1 220lb MLB, SL/SL Speed, Secure Tackler, Crushes RB on blitzes, can QB spy, & tough tough tough!! pic.twitter.com/IaCIiuS1ou
Justin Hilliard | Ohio State | Senior | 6’1” 227 lbs
While Hilliard projects in a different role than Jamin Davis and Tony Fields II, he still would add quality value, depth, and a potential starting caliber skillset on day three of the 2021 NFL Draft. Projecting more as a undersized MIKE linebacker or a SAM in Dan Quinn’s scheme, Hilliard plays the position with extreme downhill physicality, an attacking mentality, and showed the ability to disengage blockers with ease. While he showed up as a cover-defender in the BIG10 Championship, that isn’t an area we’ve seen him enough in to project him as a WILL linebacker at the next level. Hilliard does play with above average athleticism, and would step in as a key special teams player. Down the stretch of the season for the Buckeyes, Hilliard was one of the team’s best defenders, and that helped elevate his draft stock after spending most of his career as a depth piece in the Ohio State defense.
OLB Justin Hilliard been playing good football for @OhioStateFB over last month— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 3, 2021
6'1 231lbs outstanding mix of length/athleticism. Only played 263 snaps on defense coming into '20 w/ injuries early on - granted 6th year eligibility
Staggering 726 special teams snaps in career pic.twitter.com/3dFc7oYGex
Riley Cole | South Alabama | Senior | 6’2” 245 lbs
After originally committing to Alabama, Riley Cole ended up having an extremely successful career at South Alabama. While he isn’t the extraordinary athlete that any of the three guys listed above are, he still provides value as an instinctive, downhill linebacker that plays the position with great physicality when taking on blocks, average athleticism, and a very-sure tackler when in space. Cole projects best as a SAM or MIKE in Quinn’s scheme, and his growth and “want too” as a pass rusher in 2020 and throughout the offseason, further grew the liking of the idea of him at SAM linebacker at the next level. Similar to Hilliard, Cole is day-one impact on special teams, and possesses the instincts and traits to crack a starting lineup eventually if the arrow continues to point upwards.
The last time I was this excited about a LB stacking/shedding blocks? ...Fred Warner’s BYU tape— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 20, 2021
South Alabama @WeAreSouth_FB LB Riley Cole is one of my favorites this class - I predict he’ll be a @seniorbowl darling
Length/Athleticism + Toughness + Burst/Surge + Hip Snap = Whoa pic.twitter.com/mITguXckMt
There are plenty of other great names to know on day three, but the above are some of my favorites. Below are a few other names to keep an eye on as we progress through the offseason.