The Dallas Cowboys have most starters in the secondary and along the defensive line returning on existing contracts. The biggest concern is in the middle and what could happen at the linebacker position.
Dallas has young players like Damone Clark, Jabril Cox, and Devin Harper, but someone with proven experience is needed to help lead the group. Leighton Vander Esch, Anthony Barr, and Luke Gifford are free agents and could find homes elsewhere if their price is right.
So what can the Cowboys do to shore up the position? Clark and Cox hope to take the next step in their development into full-time starters so Micah Parsons can spend every play rushing the passer. If that can’t happen, and Dallas can’t re-sign Vander Esch to another deal, there are other veteran linebackers the front office can take action on.
Here are three names that could make sense.
3. Deion Jones, LB - Cleveland Browns
Deion Jones is almost a near bullseye as someone the Cowboys could target. He played his first five seasons in the NFL with Dan Quinn as his head coach in Atlanta. Quinn took Jones as a rookie and turned him into a superstar linebacker. He finished third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and made it to a Pro Bowl the following season.
Jones missed most of his third season in Atlanta due to a foot injury he sustained Week 1, but was able to come back and record a combined 353 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, and two interceptions from 2019 to 2021.
Browns in Tampa 2. Delpit plays with great spacing to cut off hole shot to the field, gets his hips flipped and makes a play on the football. Deion Jones carrying Curtis Samuel down the seam is vintage ATL Jones. pic.twitter.com/SFS4XDwEi9— Cory (@realcorykinnan) January 4, 2023
In October of 2022, the Falcons decided to trade Jones to the Cleveland Browns, where he played 11 games on a struggling defense. Through all the chaos, Jones managed to show flashes of the player he was in Atlanta, which is why the move would make sense for Dallas.
Similarly to when Quinn brought in his former Atlanta players in 2021, Jones would already know most of the playbook and would be a great mentor to Clark and Cox. The Cowboys could attempt to sign him for a one-year $2 million deal, which they gave to Vander Esch last season.
3. Lavonte David, LB - Tampa Bay Buccaneerse
The long-time Buccaneer would bring instant leadership that would work well in the Cowboys locker room. Lavonte David is 33 years old, which isn’t ideal, but he proved to still be a quality linebacker for Todd Bowles in 2022.
Coming off a 2021 season where David missed five regular season games, he found a way to stay healthy and be on the field for every game last season. He racked up 124 tackles, ten tackles for loss, three sacks, and one forced fumble. David is known for being a turnover machine, with 12 career interceptions and 27 forced fumbles. Outside of Vander Esch, Dallas needed help with linebackers defending in pass coverage. Luckily, David still seems to have a feel for it.
Look how quickly Lavonte David changes direction when he realizes Dalton's throwing to the flat. 32 years old and still one of the best doing it. pic.twitter.com/aVuIkANSdf— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) December 7, 2022
Like Jones, his experience helps the young players on Dallas’ defense, but his recent Super Bowl success could show the Cowboys what it takes to get there. David recently spoke about his desire to retire as a Buccaneer but has yet to have contract discussions with the front office.
Jerry Jones has a history of bringing in players who spend their entire career with one team, like Zach Thomas coming to Dallas in 2008 after 12 years in Miami. If he wants to be a part of what Quinn is building for a one-year, $5 million deal and retire with the Bucs next season, that will give Dallas veteran leaders at all three levels of their defense—DeMarcus Lawrence, David, and Jayron Kearse. That sounds pretty special.
1. Azeez Al-Shaair, LB - San Francisco 49ers
If you can’t beat them, sign them to join you. The San Francisco 49ers produced the No. 1 defense in the NFL under DeMeco Ryans in 2022. Their linebacker corps is the glue that holds everything together. The 49ers might have the best duo in Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. But when a team pays two of their linebackers top dollar, there’s not enough for everyone.
Azeez Al-Shaair is the odd man out in this situation where the 49ers might be unable to keep their linebacking corps from last season. He’s also the player that destroyed Ezekiel Elliott on the play where he played center. Their loss could become Dallas’ treasure for their defense.
Azeez Al-Shaair with the TFL pic.twitter.com/DDAwWY6Bi1— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) December 13, 2021
Just 25-years-old, Al-Shaair would be a player the Cowboys could bring in if they aren’t confident in where Cox’s development is heading. No. 51 for San Francisco didn’t light up the stat sheet this season, but Dallas would be betting on him being the player he was in 2021. That year, Al-Shaair played 13 games totaling 102 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks, and one interception.
For context, Vander Esch played 14 games and had 90 tackles, four tackles for loss, and one sack this season. The Wolf Hunter had a great season in 2022, so if the Cowboys were to get similar production from Al-Shaair, who’s younger and has shown the ability to stay healthier, they might have found a golden ticket.
It’s uncertain what his market will be, and with Ryans going to Houston, that could ultimately be his landing spot. However, PFF is giving Al-Shaair a two-year $8 million estimated deal with $4.75 guaranteed. The 2023 defense can be special if the Cowboys could pay a little more to get it done and pair him with a great coordinator in Quinn.