As with every offseason, there will be plenty of roster turnover heading into the newest regular season. This roster turnover currently is hitting the linebacker room fairly hard as players like Leighton Vander Esch, Anthony Barr, and Luke Gifford hit the free agent market. Gifford may not be used as a starter on defense, but his play on special teams has made him a valuable player just as Vander Esch and Barr have been for the Dallas Cowboys.
Vander Esch was declined his fifth-year option from his rookie deal but eventually re-signed with the team on a modest one-year, $2 million dollar contract. It is safe to say that Vander Esch is due for a raise ahead of the 2023 season, and it remains to be seen if the Cowboys will be willing and able to pay up to keep him around. Barr, on the other hand, is a player that many will not be up in arms about if he is not back on the team for 2023 as his 2022 season was underwhelming.
The linebacker room as it currently stands features a group of young and inexperienced players aside from Micah Parsons and Devante Bond. Parsons obviously is the lead dog in this pack, and one of the best players across the NFL, but spends a lot of time as a defensive lineman. Bond has bounced around the league since being drafted by the Buccaneers in 2016. He also hasn’t seen any game action since the 2020 season when he appeared in two games for the Chicago Bears.
Besides the aforementioned Parsons and Bond, the franchise has a couple players who were drafted in the prior two NFL drafts still on the roster, Damone Clark and Jabril Cox. Both Clark and Cox played their college ball recently at LSU and were teammates during the 2020 season. So far during their brief NFL careers they’ve appeared in a combined 26 total games. The jury is obviously still out on both players, but with the allotment of talent at the position in this year’s draft class it would be wise to add more depth to the room.
Here are three players that would fit the bill in terms of adding even more speed and athleticism to the Cowboys linebacker room.
Nick Hampton, Appalachian State
As a member of the 2018 recruiting class, Nick Hampton was a two-star prospect from the state of South Carolina. In his home state, he was ranked as the 46th best player, but didn’t have any Power 5 offers on the table. However, he did have offers from a handful of other schools like Miami of Ohio and Troy before committing to Appalachian State. Over the next five years, Hampton would appear in 50 games, and would start in 30 of them. As a very seasoned player at the collegiate level, he would tally 26.5 career sacks with 18 of them coming in his final two years in college. He also had 175 career tackles to go along with those sack figures. In addition to a solid career with the Mountaineers, Hampton would garner All-Sun Belt first-team honors in his final two seasons in Boone.
Hampton has shown great athleticism while moving from side to side while attacking the ball carrier as well as being able to drop back in coverage and look comfortable doing it. Although his size would suggest otherwise, his strength and violent hands give opposing offensive lineman fits when playing at the line. He also uses his athletic ability as a closer and has made plenty of splash plays while in school. In addition to his physical abilities, Hampton possesses a good mental game and sees the field very well. The mental aspect of his game is at a high level and that is in part due to amount of experience he has gained while playing in five straight seasons in college.
Hampton’s athleticism is clearly evident on the field with how much he impacts each game. What will get him in a bind at times is his ability to shed blocks which can certainly be attributed to his smaller overall frame. There is going to be a learning curve for him as his size and natural athleticism appears to more of a linebacker than defensive lineman at the NFL level. Due to the learning curve, it could limit the teams that may draft or when they draft him.
Regardless of the learning curve that is coming for Nick Hampton, there is very much to like about him as a prospect. There is plenty of ability already there. Time is the operative word because he will need some time to potentially unlock a good professional football player. At least for the time being, he could still come in and be a situational player on defense.
Owen Pappoe, Auburn
Owen Pappoe, coming out of high school, was a five-star player from the state of Georgia. Not only was he a five-star prospect, but he was also the 25th best player in the entire 2019 class and first overall at his position of outside linebacker. As expected, the usual suspects like Alabama and Georgia came calling but it was another SEC school that locked up Pappoe’s services and that school was Auburn. Being one of the most highly-touted players in the 2019 class, expectations were very high from the get go. Pappoe would deliver the goods as he started every game his true freshman year. Much of the same would occur the next three seasons, with the lone exception being the 2021 season which was due to an ankle injury. By the time he finished his four seasons with the Tigers, he would amass 256 total tackles, eight sacks, and two interceptions in 41 career games.
Pappoe possesses many tools in his tool box. He has been a starter for the Auburn Tigers from day one, and in two of those seasons was the leader of the Tigers defense. This obviously sounds like a player who leads by example and is a natural born leader. He plays the run, attacks the quarterback, and plays the pass quite well. He uses his elite athleticism to attack blocking schemes quite effectively, has a great feel in coverage, and also is a very effective blitzer as well. He has tremendous speed and knows how to use it, but also does quite well in finding the right angles to attack the passer. Pappoe also is a very heady player who understands the game quite well.
Having all the tools, and using all the tools regularly, are two totally different things and his overall performance has been lackluster at times. His size at the professional level is a little bit on the smaller side which poses issues in the NFL. Being on the smaller size at times can be to his determinant as he can struggle to get off blocks. He is a very heady player, but also can sometimes be a little overzealous on play-action fakes which can take him out of plays more often than he should be. One other area of concern is his tackling, which can be a tad poor at times.
There are more boxes that Owen Pappoe checks than he doesn’t, which gives him a very good shot at being a very good professional football player. If he can clean up in areas like tackling and biting on play-action, then he should be fine at the next level. The size concerns aren’t as big of a deal as many would suggest because of his natural playmaking ability. Good coaches will utilize him properly and get the best out of him. He has the coverage skills and speed to even play that big nickel that we’ve seen Dallas deploy to great effect. There is much to like about Pappoe’s chances to have a nice NFL career.
Isaiah Land, Florida A&M
Isaiah Land wasn’t really on anyone radar coming out of high school in the class of 2018. In fact, he was unranked and didn’t have any offers on the table. However, he would take his talents to Florida A&M who play at the FCS level. In his freshman season of 2018, he would appear in one game but would ultimately redshirt. The following season, Land would appear in nine games on the season. In 2020, because of the Covid-19 situation the season was cancelled. The 2021 season is when Isaiah Land would garner so much recognition for his play that after a season that featured 19 sacks, SEC conference schools lined up to try and gain his services. Talk about a tremendous turnaround by going from zero interest in 2018, to having the top schools in the FBS knocking on your door just three years later.
Land would stay loyal to Florida A&M and essentially say thanks but no thanks to those SEC schools and return to play for the Rattlers for the 2022 season. In his final season on campus, he would see a dip in production but would still have eight sacks on the year. By the time it was all said and done at Florida A&M, Land would tally 29 career sacks as well as 89 total tackles. Land would also leave Tallahassee with the Buck Buchanan Award as the FCS National Player of the Year.
Land shows tremendous instincts along with good reaction skills. These type of attributes would leave Land in a good position more times than not to find the ball in traffic. As a pass rusher, he is very much a speed rusher as he uses his quickness along with good bend around the edge to give opposing tackles and quarterbacks fits. Standing at over 6-3 and weighing just a shade under 240 pounds makes him look the part. It also doesn’t hurt to have a muscular frame and adequate arm length. Being as aggressive as he is and paring that with a high motor typically leads to Land being involved in many plays during games.
Land certainly checks a lot of the boxes that you are looking for from an athletic and effort perspective. What he lacks at the moment is an array of pass rushing moves when out on the edge. He focuses too much on simply using his speed while rushing. Since arriving on campus out of high school he has added roughly 20 more pounds to his frame, but he is still a little small from a weight perspective. Given the lack of size, but good athleticism sees him moving to play more of a linebacker role at the next level which is something he has minimal experience in doing. Due to this, there will be a learning curve in the NFL for Land.
There is much to like about Land’s game because of size good height, solid length, and athleticism. However, the lack of bulk he possesses makes a transition to another position the most likely option. There will be a learning curve for him, but because of the natural talent that he does have, there is enough intrigue to take a chance on a player who has the right attributes that just needs some seasoning.