When the Dallas Cowboys took Micah Parsons with the 12th pick in this year's draft it had many fans and draft analysts scratching their heads, even though Parsons was one of the most talented players on defense in the draft. When they took Jabril Cox later in the draft, it had many wondering what the Cowboys plan was in terms of usage after adding another player to a group that already had a couple of notable starters (Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith) and a notable backup (Keanu Neal). With OTAs now starting, the Cowboys are getting a feel for their new linebackers and how they will be able to insert them into their lineups on defense.
Some LB pairings: Micah Parsons/Keanu Neal; Leighton Vander Esch/Neal; Parsons/Jabril Cox; Parsons and LVE played MLB.— Calvin Watkins (@calvinwatkins) May 25, 2021
If we take a look at the Cowboys current potential starters at the position, it makes the most sense to have rookie first-round pick, Micah Parsons, playing the middle linebacker position where he will be able to read and react to ball carriers as well as use his speed to make plays in the backfield rushing the quarterback. For all the questions about what will happen to Leighton Vander Esch's future with the team, right now in the present he may be best suited to play the weakside linebacker position even though he is still currently working in the middle. That’s where he started with the Cowboys and had the most success early in his career. Jaylon Smith might have to slide out to the strong side linebacker. The Cowboys aren’t there yet with this lineup and are still trying things out, but come gameday they may be using this type of formation.
Those three on the field at the same time give the Cowboys a strong early-down unit that can attack the run but also has enough speed to get to the quarterback when a designed blitz is dialed up for them. As for the other two linebackers the Cowboys added this offseason in Keanu Neal and Jabril Cox, the team was very fortunate to get both of them. The Cowboys now have the luxury of being able to get Vander Esch and Smith off the field and bring in Neal or Cox on passing downs.
In fact, here is what Neal had to say about their plans for him in this defense.
Keanu Neal says Dan Quinn is one of the components that factored into him coming to Dallas.— Brianna Dix (@DixBrianna) May 25, 2021
His role? Told media he is playing WILL in base and dime in nickel packages.
“The hook, curl, dropping into some coverage, man-to-man on a tight end.”
Obviously the Cowboys recognized their weaknesses at linebacker and are addressing it with Neal and Cox in nickel and dime packages. We saw what happened to Vander Esch and Smith last season when they were matched up against tight ends and running backs and the Cowboys have looked to fix that issue. The speed and ability to cover those tight ends and running backs by Neal and Cox, along with Parson’s abilities in the middle, gives the Cowboys the lineup to handle those would-be mismatches. Teams should no longer be able to pick up easy first downs on quick crossing routes, quick ins, quick outs, or dump offs in the flat against this unit on passing downs.
Barring injuries to these players, the Cowboys may have effectively shored up their linebacker corps and now have the ability to handle any situation thrown their way. Teams may try to use a hurry-up offense to keep Vander Esch and Smith on the field to try and attack them in the passing game, but hopefully the move back to a more familiar defense will give them more confidence to handle covering in those instances. Overall, the Cowboys are moving in the right direction with this unit and it’s going to be very fun watching how they could potentially move these players around.