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NFL Draft

How Will Cowboys’ LB Rotation Shake Out?

  • The Draft Network
  • August 17, 2021
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Entering the 2021 offseason cycle, the Dallas Cowboys proved to be a secondary-hungry ballclub, desperate for talent within Dan Quinn’s apex level of a defense mangled and butchered throughout the duration of the 2020 campaign.

Entering the draft, all eyes settled on the premier corner talents of the class in South Carolina stalwart Jaycee Horn and Alabama ballhawk Patrick Surtain II. Both came with NFL lineage and both, at the time, looked to be in range for do-it-all team executive Jerry Jones to pluck from the college ranks, providing his beloved Cowboys with the CB1 presence they’ve lacked for years.

While Micah Parsons ended up as the pick at No. 12 overall, following the selections of Horn and Surtain going on back-to-back picks to Carolina (No. 8) and Denver (No. 9), respectively, Jones inadvertently raised the eyebrows of current second-level talents Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander-Esch. Fast forward a few months, two games into the preseason, and the Cowboys have found themselves in an awfully sticky predicament at the linebacker position.

Parsons has flown around camp, showcasing his sideline-to-sideline speed. Vander-Esch has looked fast and active as well, and through two exhibition contests, looks to have locked up a spot in the middle alongside the former Penn State standout. That has left Smith, fourth-round selection Jabril Cox, and linebacker/safety hybrid Keanu Neal fighting for the last spot in the nucleus of Quinn’s defense. And while it looks to be Smith who should surely earn the nod over Cox and Neal, at least for Week 1, film doesn’t lie, and Smith has been a step (or two) behind everyone else in the battle for snaps. 

This isn’t to say everything the 2019 Pro Bowler in Smith has done has been bad, but rather his mediocre play has welcomed a potential expendable role, which could lead to a drastic drop in snaps following three consecutive seasons where the former Notre Dame linebacker was on the field for an average of 95% of the defensive workload. 

Major schematic changes are expected from Quinn, including a heavy usage of nickel where Neal, a former safety, will provide a helping hand in coverage from the second level. And concurrently, when teams tend to run cover-heavy concepts, linebackers make their way to the sideline, leaving, usually, just a tandem of linebacking talents on the turf. The days of stagnant base defense with limited rotational value are long gone, and with Smith’s proven inability to cover in space, he could quickly find himself in a much lesser role than he envisioned just months ago.

Inked to a six-year, $68.4M contract just two seasons back, the lower left quadrant is a lonely, dark place to find Smith, who just a few seasons ago was looked upon as one of football’s top linebacking talents. However, it’s been much of the same story this offseason for Smith, who’s often become the burden of blame following missed assignments, a lack of speed, and overall lack of talent alongside Parsons and Vander-Esch. But, with money comes playing time, and although it’s an unfortunate lay of the land in today’s NFL, it’s also placed Smith under the brightest spotlight he’s ever had to face entering his fifth season in Dallas.

For a roster littered with talent on both sides of the football, the linebacker spot could be their deepest and most optimistic unit of all moving toward future seasons. However, with just a few spots to be filled, and nearly double the personnel set to compete, Dallas’ window of dominance at the second level once looked upon as a gaping aperture following the selection of Parsons, has quickly become their muddiest positional group to sort out just a few short weeks from kick-off.

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