Linebacker was a major source of trouble for the Cowboys in 2020, as Jaylon Smith continued his regression from the previous season while Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee both dealt with injuries yet again. It doesn’t seem likely the Cowboys will opt to cut Smith, although he’s still far from safe, and Vander Esch is entering the final year of his rookie deal (unless Dallas picks up his fifth-year option), increasing the likelihood Dallas could target a linebacker in the draft.
Enter LSU’s Jabril Cox, currently slated as a mid-round prospect with potential to rise up boards.
Name: Jabril Cox
Weight: 231 lbs
2020 Stats: 10 games, 58 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery
The 2020 season was his first and only with the Tigers, as Cox transferred from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State after a three-year career there. Starting every game as a freshman, Cox recorded 75 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, an interception to go along with his four pass breakups, and he also forced a fumble while recovering three.
Going into his sophomore season, Cox had 91 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, four picks, and seven pass breakups. He had a similar junior year, with 92 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, one pick, and seven passes defensed. Cox’s dominant play for the best team in the FCS is why the reigning national champions of the FBS wanted him, and while LSU didn’t come close to a repeat of their magical 2019 season, Cox showed he more than belonged.
Tackling: Cox is a very consistent and reliable tackler. He does a good job of getting in position to take good angles, frequently wrapping up and bringing guys down. Cox has a very long tackle radius for a linebacker, which allows him to make up ground he hasn’t already covered with his feet. Occasionally this gets him into trouble, as Cox can rely too much on arm tackles, but it’s not a major hole in his game.
Coverage Skills: This is what really sets Cox apart for me, and he generated a lot of hype at the Senior Bowl due to his pass coverage reps. His long arms play a big role here, as he’s able to flood passing lanes easier. More than that, though, Cox has a great understanding of where to be and how to leverage himself on the field. He’s better in zone than in man, but Cox has the athleticism and wherewithal to hold up against tight ends and bigger slot receivers in man coverage. He could very well be the best coverage linebacker on the roster if Dallas were to draft him.
Run Support: Cox seems like the prototypical fit in Dan Quinn’s defense. He’s lean, long, and flies around the field in run support. It will be interesting to see how Cox tests at his pro day, but his film shows a guy with true sideline-to-sideline quickness. There are times where he’ll make the wrong read in run support, as Cox tries to get going a little too quickly. Improving his patience in that respect will help Cox become an incredible NFL linebacker.
Block Shedding: Cox really needs to improve his ability to shed blocks, as he gets tangled up far too often. His long arms give him a tool to better stack and shed against blockers if he gets good extension, but Cox doesn’t seem to utilize this trait much. It might be a byproduct of thinking he can beat anyone with his speed, but either way he’ll have to improve here. Cox does a good job disengaging against skill players, but when linemen get their hands on him he’s usually taken out of the play. Of course, the flip side is he’s usually so quick that linemen don’t get him, but NFL linemen are different athletes.
Pass Rush Ability: There is some very real potential here as a blitzing linebacker. Cox recorded at least four sacks in each of his three seasons at North Dakota State, demonstrating the ability to use his speed and burst as an extra pass rusher on occasion. His issues with shedding blocks don’t make him a premier pass rusher by any stretch, and that’s likely a big reason why LSU used him much less in this fashion. Nobody is going to be suggesting he move to EDGE anytime soon, but Cox should be given a couple of blitz packages wherever he ends up.
Athleticism: It’s been mentioned but Cox is a supremely fluid athlete. His hips are loose, his feet are precise, and he’s got both burst and good long speed for his position. Quinn loves to get linebackers with this kind of athleticism - it’s the type of linebacker he coveted in Atlanta - and Cox will likely leave the new Cowboys defensive coordinator pounding the table for him based on his athleticism.
Processing: This is tough to evaluate for Cox only because he plays so fast. In run support, he’s coming downhill so quickly that he can often make the wrong read and fill the wrong gap, and he’ll have to get more patient at the next level. But in coverage you can see that Cox is a heady player who understands how the defense is operating and where he needs to be. This is a smart player who just needs a little more discipline alongside his fast style of play.
Toughness: Cox is definitely a speed and finesse guy, as opposed to a big and strong linebacker, so his toughness doesn’t show up in the way people typically think of. But Cox was a force in the FCS and was able to naturally translate his game to the SEC, where he was going up against NFL-ready talent each week. His willingness to sprint into the pile as a run defender is evident, and there’s not really any reps where Cox is afraid of contact. He’s always looking to make an impact.
Intangibles: Cox is a natural-born leader. He was a team captain at North Dakota State and earned the same honor at LSU despite transferring there for one season. At both stops, Cox was the player who relayed the defensive play calls to his teammates, called out audibles, and ensured his players were properly lined up on each play. He’s someone you want in the locker room, period.