The Dallas Cowboys have some interesting position battles set up for Oxnard when they reconvene for training camp. There is the opening across from Trevon Diggs at cornerback that needs to be filled. The swing tackle position bares watching. Two tight ends with slightly different skill-sets will battle for top dog. Even the punter spot is going to have real competition.
But one area that appears to be very jumbled at the moment is linebacker. No longer do we just pencil in the names of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Instead, we have to look at a few new factors that have muddied the waters at the position.
One is the influx of new players at linebacker. The Cowboys went out and drafted Micah Parsons with their top pick in the first round, then decided to double down by taking Jabril Cox in the fourth round. That was after they had already added Keanu Neal in free agency and declared him a linebacker. There is certainly a case to be made for playing time for each of the top five linebackers.
And that leads us to the second factor. Just how will new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn utilize them? There is always the run vs. pass linebacker. Smith and Vander Esch may seem like more of the former while Neal and Cox may fit more into the latter category. But there is also the flexibility factor. Will Micah Parsons be used in the designated pass rusher role to any significant degree? Will Quinn use defensive ends like Randy Gregory, Tarell Basham or others in a stand-up linebacker role on occasion, squeezing out some of the snaps for the regular guys?
There just seem to be so many variations when it comes to the linebackers roles and playing time. This is going to be one of the most interesting aspects to watch at training camp and in preseason games. Parsons would seem to be in line for the most snaps. That’s a bold statement for a rookie, but Parsons is an athletic freak and it’s obvious Quinn is looking for more explosive, athletic guys at the second level. He could also find time as the DPR, meaning he could be a three-down guy who rarely leaves the field.
Meanwhile, you can’t discount how much Neal and Cox may see action because of the prevalence of the passing game in the NFL. Will Smith and LVE be relegated to base coverage lineups and be substituted out in obvious passing situations?
Just how the playing time plays out among the linebackers is real mystery at the moment. Here’s one guess ranking the playing time of these five linebackers in 2021.
- Micah Parsons - He’s going to be used in a lot of ways and the Cowboys want to get their top pick on the field and settled in for the next five years.
- Keanu Neal - He obviously has Dan Quinn’s trust from their Atlanta days and he should be a top coverage linebacker option, which should be the majority of defensive snaps.
- Jaylon Smith - He has some versatility to his game in terms of rushing the passer and holds the big contract.
- Leighton Vander Esch - Injury could rob him of some time, and he seems less versatile, but should play almost as much as Smith.
- Jabril Cox - This will be his learning year as the Cowboys get him ready for a bigger future.
If you had to rank these five players according to playing time this season, what would your ranking look like?