No position on the Cowboys' roster got more resources thrown at it this offseason than linebacker. With returning starters and potential new ones now in the mix, what does a projected depth chart for 2021 look like before training camp begins?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch come into this season fighting for their futures. Vander Esch has an expiring deal after Dallas declined to pick up his 5th-year option in 2022, and Jaylon's contract can be dropped for significant salary cap savings next offseason.
Because of these players' struggles the last two years, the Cowboys spent a 1st-Round pick to acquire Micah Parsons and grabbed Jabril Cox in the 4th Round of the last NFL Draft. They also made Keanu Neal their most-expensive new free agent with the plan to convert the former Pro Bowl safety to linebacker.
So what might a 2021 depth chart look like for the linebackers? Here's one guess, with players making the roster on the top lines and other camp participants listed below them.
- LB1: Jaylon Smith, Francis Bernard
- LB2: Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox
- Anthony Hines
- LB3: Leighton Vander Esch, Keanu Neal
- Azur Kamara
The traditional ideas of middle, strongside, and weakside linebackers have become increasingly irrelevant in the modern NFL. Teams even running a 4-3 scheme deploy their nickel defense more than any other grouping, making that third starter at linebacker less important now than the third cornerback.
Of course, whenever Dallas does run its base defense there will be certain things to watch. Leighton Vander Esch is reportedly getting back to the WILL role after struggling in the middle in 2020, but that's also where Keanu Neal makes the most sense as a converting defensive back.
We've also heard talk of Micah Parsons being used as a pass rusher at times, which is also a way Jaylon Smith might be able to regain some street cred. However these things shake out, the hope is that new Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn just puts these guys in a far better position to succeed and make positive impacts than Mike Nolan did.
Getting too caught up in the details, and even starting roles, may be a fool's errand in 2021. The Cowboys have a clear top four with Neal, Parsons, Smith, and Vander Esch who should all get rotated in and out heavily. Hopefully Jabril Cox is able to quickly establish his value in camp and give Dallas another reliable option.
Will the Cowboys only keep five linebackers on the 53-man roster? If the sixth guy is going to be someone like Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, or some other current or former UDFA, they may just stash him on the practice squad and take advantage of the new rules to protect and utilize him a needed. A true sixth LB would often be a gameday inactive anyway.
Bernard and Gifford have been preseason “pet cats” the last two years. The Cowboys thought enough of Gifford to carry him on their roster in 2019 despite a significant injury, hoping he could return and contribute later in the season. If there is a sixth spot to be had, it will likely come down to one of them.
A spotlight will be on the linebacker position when training camp begins this Wednesday. Anytime a 1st-round pick is used it draws eyes, but the issues with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch already had our attention. It promises to be one of the hottest topics this summer and a focal point between now and the start of the regular season.