The Dallas Cowboys are very light at linebacker heading into next week's NFL Draft. Right now, prospects Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard would probably make the 2021 roster based on current talent. But could next week's big event land a major blow to their job security?
Gifford and Bernard have been two of the hot names coming out of the 2019 and 2020 training camps, respectively. But with only eight total snaps between them on last year's defense, neither is going into this offseason with any real momentum.
Their current status on the roster is based solely on attrition from other depth players. Sean Lee remains unsigned in free agency and is still contemplating retirement. Joe Thomas signed with the Houston Texans last month, and Justin March also remains on the open market.
Even with Keanu Neal coming from Atlanta and converting to linebacker, Dallas still has just him, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith as proven commodities at the position. Bernard and Gifford would be the top reserves right now by default, not by merit.
The Cowboys are expected to focus on their defense with their 10 picks in next week's draft. Between concerns about Smith and Vander Esch's long-term value and the current depth issues, it's easy to see Dallas spending multiple picks at linebacker.
Any fresh faces, and especially drafted players, could easily walk in and bump undrafted hopefuls like Bernard and Gifford down the depth chart and off the roster.
There was excitement about Luke Gifford following a big performance in Dallas' 2019 preseason opener against the 49ers. But after looking like a young Sean Lee in that game, Gifford next reminded us of Lee with multiple injuries in 2019 and only six games played.
In 2020, Gifford failed to earn more than one snap on defense and only appeared on 35% of special teams plays. He also landed a two-game suspension for PED use toward the end of the season.
Bernard didn't get to play preseason games in 2020 thanks to COVID-19 but was a standout performer in the modified training camp. While he too was rarely seen on defense, he had a more meaningful share on special teams at 48% of the snaps.
Both players should benefit from Dan Quinn's arrival and a move back to more 4-3 looks on defense. But if Quinn has a big voice during the draft and is able to handpick some new talent a linebacker, carryovers like Bernard and Gifford will be major underdogs to make the team in 2021.
For now, without rookie additions or any other free agent moves, Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford will probably be Cowboys in 2021. But with high probability of multiple draft picks going to linebacker, not to mention a new wave of undrafted talent, neither Bernard or Gifford should feel a shred of comfort about their positions.