The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of work to do throughout their roster this offseason, and one position that definitely needs attention is linebacker. But as we consider what the team might do in free agency or the draft in 2020, we shouldn’t forget about prospect Luke Gifford and how he might factor into their plans.
Gifford was an undrafted free agent last year who broke out almost immediately in Dallas’ first preseason game, getting an interception and making other big plays against the 49ers. But his night was cut short with an ankle injury, and that ended up costing him the rest of the preseason as well.
But that brief flash of potential, along with his strong work during training camp, was enough that Gifford made it past final cuts. Dallas kept him inactive for five weeks and then Luke made his regular-season debut against the Jets, playing mainly on special teams.
Gifford never played a snap on defense last year, which isn’t surprising given the young talent and veteran options ahead of him. He also suffered an arm fracture in Week 15 which ended his season a little early.
So yeah, it’s understandable if this kid isn’t on your radar for next year. But there was a lot of excitement about Luke Gifford after just one quarter of preseason play, and clearly the team thought he was worth hanging on to and using in the regular season.
Given this, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Cowboys plan to give him even more responsibility in 2020.
Free agency could hit the linebacker position hard this year. While the top two of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are secure, all of the proven depth options are not under contract.
Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Justin March, and Malcolm Smith are all set to be unrestricted free agents. Dallas may try to retain some of them, but could they let somebody walk and trust that Luke Gifford can fill the void?
Another young LB prospect under contract is Chris Covington, and he and Gifford are both built to play the strong-side LB role if needed. Dallas may elect to allow these two to compete for that role rather than invest draft picks or cap space, which they have plenty of need for at other positions.
Right now you can’t say either Covington or Gifford has a clear advantage over the other. If they are given that opportunity, it will be a truly wide-open competition.
Another factor here is how new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan intends to deploy linebackers in his scheme, and the types of players he’s looking for to fill it. Gifford appears to have decent flexibility there, with the size to play outside but also the ball skills for an interior role if needed.
Of course there are red flags with Luke’s inexperience and two injuries in a single year. And given the concern over Vander Esch’s neck problems, Dallas may be looking for some more polished depth in 2020. Gifford could wind up buried on the depth chart again.
However, given how the team handled him last season, Luke Gifford is clearly a young player that the team valued. If the new coaching staff shares that opinion, Gifford may wind up with a bigger role in 2020 than you expect.