Linebacker is a hot offseason topic for the Dallas Cowboys. While the team has work to do with several expiring contracts, they also have two key assets in place in Damone Clark and Jabril Cox. Still young and unproven, how much will these recent draft picks affect the Cowboys’ decisions in free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft?
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s just quickly clarify that Micah Parsons is effectively an edge rusher until he starts talking more snaps at his official position. So when we’re talking about linebackers today, we’re talking about the guys actually play the role in the traditional sense for Dan Quinn’s 4-3 scheme.
With Leighton Vander Esch, Anthony Barr, and Luke Gifford all unrestricted free agents as of this Wednesday, that leaves the linebacker position pretty bare in Dallas. Clark and Cox are the only significant players under contract for 2023. The others are Devin Harper, a sixth-round pick last year, and practice squad guys Devante Bond and Malik Jefferson.
Vander Esch and Barr were the two busiest linebackers last season, respectively playing on 65% and 53% of the team’s total defensive snaps. Clark, a fifth-round pick last year, worked himself into a steady share of the rotation once he started playing in Week 8. He missed the first part of the season following offseason spinal surgery
Cox was sidelined much of last year, playing mostly special teams and only about 3% of the actual defensive snaps, as he continued to work his way back from the 2021 ACL injury. Cox flashed exciting potential as a fourth-round pick during his rookie season, but last year was an unfortunate backward step.
A future with Clark and Cox as starting linebackers is certainly not ridiculous given the abilities they’ve shown already. But 2023 is too soon for it to come. Both players need more experience and physical development to take on the rigors of a heavy NFL workload and the responsibilities that come with playing in the middle of the defense.
Still, their presence at least keeps Dallas from having to treat linebacker with extreme desperation this offseason. Clark could reasonably step into Anthony Barr’s role last year, and Cox could likely move up into the rotation. That still leaves the Cowboys needing to either retain or replace Leighton Vander Esch as a primary piece on defense, but you don’t have to be too worried about losing Barr and Luke Gifford in free agency.
Assuming that Micah Parsons will remain mostly an edge rusher, the offseason priorities will be filling that top spot for the true linebackers and then the last few spots on the depth chart. While re-signing Vander Esch is a solid option after a strong season, the team is rumored to be in talks with veteran Bobby Wagner. He is one of many potential replacements for Vander Esch in the impending market.
While they don’t solve that problem, Damone Clark and Jabril Cox at least help Dallas avoid a mass exodus and complete overhaul at linebacker in 2023. If they’re ready to live up to their draft-day promise and the potential we’ve glimpsed so far, these young LBs should help the Cowboys to keep their defense strong in the coming years.