After the way things unfolded last year, it was obvious that the Cowboys needed to fix a lot of things on the defensive side of the ball. Yet it was the linebacker group that garnered the most attention, and for good reason. Leighton Vander Esch, who enjoyed a phenomenal rookie season, once again failed to stay healthy for his second straight season, while Jaylon Smith seemingly produced head-scratching highlights each week. Meanwhile, Sean Lee turned another year older, and ended up retiring at season’s end.
With Dan Quinn being brought in as the new defensive coordinator - and with him, a scheme that requires linebackers who fit a different mold than Vander Esch and Smith - it seemed likely that big changes were on the horizon. There were signs like the declining of Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, and while Dallas didn’t exercise its out from Smith’s contract, they very much put both him and the Wolf Hunter on notice by signing Keanu Neal and drafting both Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox.
Suddenly, the conversation wasn’t about how the Cowboys would fix their linebacker corps, but rather how Quinn was going to get enough use out of all these different players. Well, things can still change a lot between now and Tampa Bay, but it seems like the Cowboys are starting to get a better idea of how the linebacker rotation will work out.
On Tuesday, the Cowboys released an unofficial depth chart ahead of their first preseason game, and while these depth charts rarely offer a good look at what we’ll actually see in the Hall of Fame game, it did seem to line up with what we’ve seen in training camp and heard from coaches thus far. Per the depth chart, Parsons and Vander Esch are starting at both outside linebacker spots with Smith starting at MIKE. Parsons’ backup is Francis Bernard, while Luke Gifford is behind Vander Esch. Notably, Neal is behind Smith at MIKE, and Cox is listed as the third-team MIKE.
This all seems to generally track with how training camp has gone. Parsons has been particularly impressive and drawing rave reviews from both Quinn and Mike McCarthy. Vander Esch has also turned some heads and looks noticeably quicker and more agile. Quinn even singled him out as someone who’s caught his eye early on:
“I’ve been really impressed, [and] not just from the OTA time,” Quinn told media. “Every once and a while you can just see a person that’s on a mission, and I think that’s what I’ve seen from Leighton from the time I arrived. You could just feel the energy, the intensity that he’s putting into his workouts to change his body to get as strong as he could.
“From then on, the questions, in the meetings, you could feel the urgency to go. I guess, just a quick story for him: The tackling, ‘Hey I want to improve on this spot. The work that we did and the techniques to do it.’ It’s been so impressive to see him find little things to work on over and over again, to complete his game. He’s been very impressive to me so far.”
For what it’s worth, Quinn has also offered some praise for Smith, though it hasn’t been nearly as effusive as when he discusses Parsons and Vander Esch.
Cowboys DC Dan Quinn on LB Jaylon Smith: "I feel like his stride extension has improved. I feel every bit of his speed. There have been a couple of plays where he was flying. He is working extremely hard. ... We are blitzing him more. I think he is a physical player."— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) July 30, 2021
The fact that Neal is the second-team MIKE behind Smith on the depth chart probably means something. As a long-time safety who’s moving to linebacker this year, Neal’s best attributes are easily his coverage skills, something that Smith has especially struggled with. And Neal has popped a few times in that aspect already, getting a pick in training camp and impacting other plays as well.
I’ve got the defense beating the offense, 7-3, in red zone scramble drill. Keanu Neal ends the period with a nice end zone INT pic.twitter.com/CRH94pOYAD— David Helman (@HelmanDC) August 1, 2021
On the flip side, the rookie Cox was similarly praised for his coverage skills when the Cowboys selected him in the fourth round after an unexpected fall, but he has yet to do much of anything in training camp - quite literally. Cox has rarely seen the field in team drills, and when he has been out there he’s done little to impress. That could change once he gets into a game setting, but it’s not terribly surprising to see him this far back on the depth chart at this point.
Taken all at once, this seems to be pointing to a scenario wherein the Cowboys’ starting linebacker trio in base formations consists of Parsons, Vander Esch, and Smith, with Neal coming on in nickel packages next to a mix of Parsons and Vander Esch. Parsons will also get some work on the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher, which could afford some more opportunities for Smith or Neal.
But the early expectation is that Parsons will get plenty of playing time, as will Vander Esch so long as he stays healthy, while Smith and Neal are likely to find rotational roles that play to their respective strengths, with Cox looking to be on his way towards more of a redshirt year. Again, preseason games can change all of this completely, but this is where it seems things are headed right now for Dan Quinn’s defense.