The linebacker has been a weird position group for the Dallas Cowboys as it’s been full of ups and downs over the years. Former All-Pro Sean Lee was the team’s mainstay for many years, but his career was plagued with injuries. He only had one season over his 11-year career where he played all 16 games.
The team has gotten some flash of contribution from players like Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens, and even Jaylon Smith who had to sit out his rookie season recovering from a devastating knee injury. The uncertainty of availability had the team invest in a first-round pick in Leighton Vander Esch in 2018. LVE was sharp out of the gate earning All-Pro honors his rookie year. Injuries have slowed him down, but he’s been mostly healthy these past couple of years, playing in 31 of 34 games for the Cowboys.
Last year, Vander Esch paired with Anthony Barr to handle the starting linebacker duties. The Cowboys also had a couple of young linebackers from LSU, second-year player Jabril Cox and rookie Damone Clark. Surprisingly, it was the rookie Clark who came back sooner than expected from spinal fusion surgery to add some support.
How will things look in 2023? Last week, we started putting together our offseason guide for each position group. So far, we have...
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do at quarterback
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do at running back
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do on the offensive line
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do at wide receiver
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do at tight end
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do at defensive end
- Cowboys 2023 offseason guide: Here’s what they should do at defensive tackle
Today, we’ll focus on the linebacker spot. Note, for the sake of this position group discussion, we are not factoring in Micah Parsons at the off-ball linebacker position. He did log some reps there last year, and he’ll likely have some again in the future, but they are so few and he’s one of the game’s elite edge rushers, so that’s why he’s not in the mix here.
WHAT WE KNOW
Leighton Vander Esch is now an unrestricted free agent. The team was able to keep him around last season for just $2 million which was an outstanding bargain. After two years of good availability and solid performances, the price for his services will go up.
Anthony Barr is also a free agent. His price was also $2 million last year. The former four-time Pro Bowler from Minnesota started 10 games for the Cowboys and was solid, but didn’t really show anything that would make the team feel compelled to bring him back. Luke Gifford, an UDFA in 2019, logged the fourth most snaps on defense from the linebacker position, but that only consisted of 41 snaps; however, he did lead the team in special teams snaps last year. Gifford is also an unrestricted free agent.
As for the guy’s coming back, Damone Clark is coming off a promising rookie season and is expected to be a key piece to the linebacker group in the coming years. Jabril Cox is still under contract for two more years but didn’t make the year two jump many were hoping for. He only logged 36 defensive snaps on the season and like Gifford was primarily used on special teams.
The team also has some other players way down on the depth chart who are under contract. Veterans Malik Jefferson and Devante Bond each have one more year remaining on their contract. And last year’s rookie Devin Harper played 52 snaps on special teams before an Achilles injury cut his season short.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Will the team try to retain Vander Esch, and if so how much will it cost? Or will they instead seek out another low-cost veteran to fill the void? Would linebacker be a position they attempt to address early in the draft?
Is there any lower-level depth guys who could take on a larger role this upcoming season? Are Jefferson or Bond in the mix? What about the athletic-but-raw development project Harper?
WHAT THE COWBOYS SHOULD DO
Keeping Vander Esch around would be ideal as it would give the team a veteran presence who knows the defense. If he’s not too costly, bringing him back would be a nice first step. The team should also look to the draft to find a young linebacker to be a part of the future. And if you package that with the sophomore year of Clark that should be a solid group for the 2023 season. Harper still is an intriguing prospect with elite speed and quickness to eventually grow into a larger role defensive role while still providing immediate help on special teams.