Like a singular raindrop after a long drought, the Dallas Cowboys finally dipped their toes in the water of free agency last week. James Washington and Dante Fowler will be joining the team and Dorance Armstrong was retained.
As somewhat under-the-radar news, Leighton Vander Esch and Luke Gifford were added to the list of players that will return in 2022. While not flashy or particularly exciting, these two could be final pieces of the linebacking corps that Dallas enters into 2022 with. But that would be a mistake.
The Cowboys are still in need of a linebacker despite recent signings
- Micah Parsons
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Jabril Cox
- Luke Gifford
While that is likely not the final linebacking depth chart, the top three might not change over the next few months. Maybe a couple of cheap free agents are signed as depth pieces or a day-three pick on LB would seem in character for this team. But Dallas needs more than that.
Instead of a flashy safety like Tyrann Mathieu or a solid pass rusher like Za’Darius Smith, linebacker is arguably more important right now. Because a safety or an edge defender will primarily help against the pass, but that is not where the Cowboys need reinforcements.
Because stopping the run was the defense’s biggest problem in 2021. Here is the difference in where the Cowboys defense finished by various outlets:
- DVOA: 2nd against the pass, 16th against the run
- EPA: 2nd against the pass, 20th against the run
- PFF: 9th against the pass, 27th against the run
- Yards per Play: 15th against the pass, 23rd against the run
Run defense is a problem, and a solid defensive tackle would provide massive support in this facet of the game. But knowing that Jerry and Stephen Jones have been reluctant to even consider singing or drafting a DT with high capital, it is a safe assumption that DT will continue to be mediocre at best.
But at least the Joneses are willing to address LB. Dallas cannot afford to walk into the season with LVE and Cox behind Parsons and assume the rushing defense will improve. They need to add either a free agent or an early pick if they want to prevent teams like the 49ers from taking advantage of the defense’s Achilles heel.
We discussed this idea as a whole on the latest episode of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
And Parsons, LVE, and Cox are not enough.
Parsons is obviously the best player on the defense. However, Dan Quinn rightfully uses him as a gadget linebacker. That means in the pass rush, lined up over the tight end, and even playing out wide. Parsons is already a special talent, but playing only 55% of snaps in the box means the Cowboys need true LBs to give Parsons this positional flexibility.
LVE is fine. Finishing as the 39th overall linebacker by PFF out of 95 qualifying players in 2021 was actually his highest finish since his rookie campaign in 2018. He is not a liability but he isn’t an LB that will consistently shed blocks and make plays against the run. Dallas needs more than LVE.
Now, Jabril Cox will be the popular rebuttal to the argument that the Cowboys need more run-defending linebackers. And Cox has the speed and versatility to get it done. But don't forget that he has only played nine snaps in the NFL and 115 players were selected before him. He has promise, but don't crown him the savior of the run defense just yet.
Overall Dallas still needs a player at LB that can provide an immediate boost. Because walking into the 2022 season with their current pieces would result in another poor run defense.
This isn’t even a call to sign Bobby Wagner. Yes, that is the obvious name that all fans want and he would be an immediate spark plug against the run. But names like Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower, Reggie Ragland, and Alexander Johnson would similarly be an upgrade in the LB room. And they would be cheaper than what Wagner will likely receive and all four finished with a better PFF grade against the run than LVE and Parsons.
Parsons, Vander Esch, Cox, and Gifford is a decent linebacking corps that is primarily headlined by one name. But the strength of the group is not run defense and if the Cowboys rely on Cox to provide that upgrade, there is a chance he disappoints.
Using the decent amount of cap space remaining or using an early-round pick to find a linebacker to assist against the run would solve one of Dallas’ biggest weaknesses from 2021. The Cowboys have been somewhat active lately but they shouldn't be done with LB just yet.