Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Cowboys just signed a free agent that nobody else wanted and he could become a legitimate contributor for the team. It happens every year, really. Stephen Jones has become notorious among Cowboys fans for avoiding big free agency spends, instead looking for diamonds in the rough.
Every time Dallas brings in one such player, the hype machine starts to pick up a bit. It’s an unstoppable force, the never-ending well of optimism that is the NFL offseason. And sometimes for the Cowboys - in the cases of players like Malik Hooker, Jayron Kearse, David Irving, Laurent Robinson, Jeremy Mincey, and others - it actually comes true.
So while there may be an inclination to roll one’s eyes here, just bear with me: linebacker Malik Jefferson, who the Cowboys signed on Thursday, has a chance to become a key player for them.
One glance at Jefferson’s résumé would strongly suggest the opposite, which is why he was available. A native Texan, Jefferson starred at Poteet High in Mesquite before committing to the Longhorns as the top linebacker in his class. He saw the field right away, and earned the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year award for his efforts.
Jefferson would end up struggling to match the high standards he set for himself that first year, though, and when he decided to forego his senior year and enter the draft early it was seen as a gamble. It didn’t exactly pay off, with Jefferson being selected in the third round by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Jefferson also wasn’t done any favors with his situation, either. The Bengals fired their defensive coordinator during Jefferson’s rookie year, and the whole coaching staff got the axe at the end of the season. The new coaching staff ended up cutting Jefferson at the conclusion of the preseason.
The Browns claimed Jefferson off waivers, but cut him a few months later. He landed on the Chargers’ practice squad before being the recipient of yet another preseason cut the next year. Jefferson then landed with the Titans, bounced back to the Chargers, and spent the majority of the past year on the Colts practice squad. In four years, Jefferson has been employed by five different teams and has 16 total tackles to his name.
So what could possibly inspire confidence that Jefferson is anything more than a camp body in Dallas?
Well, for starters, Jefferson is entering a much more stable environment than he’s had at any point in his career thus far. Of the five teams he’s been on, three of them are no longer coached by the staff that was there when Jefferson was. The two teams that aren’t on that list - the Titans and Colts - never represented an actual opportunity for playing time for Jefferson.
In Dallas, Jefferson is going to be getting some stellar coaching in the form of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, defensive pass game coordinator Joe Whitt, and senior defensive assistant and de facto linebackers coach George Edwards. That alone bodes well for Jefferson’s growth and development, which is key to the next part.
The next part being that Jefferson was a very intriguing prospect coming out of Texas. He was an athletic freak of nature, testing in the 80th percentile or higher in all but one of the linebacker drills at the combine that year. That’s the kind of athleticism that Quinn prioritizes in his scheme.
The biggest knock on Jefferson, though, was that he didn’t have enough of an instinct for the game. Too often he was late to diagnose plays and close on the ball. The Longhorns’ defense may have asked too much of him and he struggled to capitalize on his physical prowess as a result.
One of the reasons why Quinn has garnered so much praise from players both current and former is due to how easy he makes things for his players. Quinn’s ability to simplify his scheme and simply let his players attack was often cited as a big part of the defense’s quick turnaround after a terrible year under Mike Nolan’s complex and complicated defensive scheme. It would stand to reason, then, that Jefferson is now in a situation where he can take advantage of some of those high-level physical skills.
Finally, Jefferson has a real opportunity here because the linebacker room is a bit thin right now. Parsons is the unquestioned leader, but the two biggest contributors after him look to be Leighton Vander Esch and Jabril Cox. Vander Esch is clearly not in the Cowboys’ long term plans (they declined his fifth-year option and only re-signed him for one year) while Cox is coming off an ACL injury in his rookie year.
If Jefferson is able to reach his potential in a scheme that best maximizes his natural talents, then he could blow up in training camp and the preseason. That alone could earn him a roster spot, but it could also earn him a larger role than just being a special teamer or depth piece. If Vander Esch struggles or Cox is slow to start the year, Jefferson could find himself as the third linebacker in the pecking order in Dallas.
Of course, this all requires a lot to go right for Jefferson, but it’s not hard to see a path towards that happening when you consider his skill set and how it relates to his fit in Quinn’s scheme. It’s certainly not a guarantee, either, but Jefferson does fit the bill that other players like Kearse, Irving, and Mincey all once fit. It’s entirely possible that Jefferson is just a camp body, but don’t be surprised if he manages to put it all together and become more than that.