Looking to build a defense that matches the skill level of their star-studded offense, the Dallas Cowboys spent three of their nine draft picks on Rod Marinelli's side of the ball. Addressing arguably their biggest need at linebacker with the 19th overall pick, the Cowboys came away from the 2018 NFL Draft with two players for new LB Coach Ben Bloom to work with.
Leighton Vander Esch and Chris Covington will be joined by Kansas Defensive End Dorance Armstrong as a trio of rookie defenders in Dallas – all looking to solidify a deep and versatile front seven.
Here is my best projection of the roles these Cowboys rookies will play in 2018.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch
A controversial first-round selection out of Boise State, figuring out where Leighton Vander Esch helps the Cowboys defense is obvious. Losing Anthony Hitchens to free agency, the Cowboys would be reckless to enter this season with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith as their only true plan at linebacker.
This is where the team's fixation with Vander Esch comes from, although determining his actual fit with Dallas is not as clear-cut.
Sean Lee is the Cowboys starter at WILL for every game he's available in, often lining up with only one other LB next to him. In these Nickel packages, I believe the Cowboys are hopeful that their 19th overall pick can join Lee on the field.
Leighton Vander Esch's DC has already compared the rookie to former Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher. With similar range and athleticism, LVE can help the Cowboys significantly in pass coverage.
Vander Esch's biggest weakness, his play strength against the run, can be covered up for by a healthy Jaylon Smith. Playing without his AFO brace and expecting to take another massive step towards stardom in 2018, Smith will reportedly do so from the SAM position.
Seen as a lesser role by some, Smith can excel as a strong side player in Dallas, earning more snaps as he progresses. Whether or not this also increases the Cowboys' usage of Base 4-3 looks is yet to be determined, and will directly play into how big of a role LVE can find.
The Cowboys have big plans for Vander Esch to step in right away and begin reaching his ceiling as a prospect. Following where he can best handle this responsibility as a rookie will be one of the biggest story lines of this offseason.
Defensive End Dorance Armstrong
On paper, the Cowboys are entering the 2018 season with one of their deepest defensive lines in years. Reinforcing this in the fourth round of the draft, the Cowboys took another defender ready to take the field in year one – DE Dorance Armstrong.
With last year's 28th overall pick Taco Charlton finding his home at left end near the end of his rookie campaign, the Cowboys have formidable depth on that side with franchise player DeMarcus Lawrence.
Framing Armstrong as the Cowboys solution at right end would be unfair for the rookie. With the team carefully preparing for a Randy Gregory reinstatement however, Armstrong could fit nicely into this pass rush rotation.
For the first time in a long while, roster spots will be hard to come by for just any defensive lineman working in Dallas this summer. Close to a top 100 pick, Dorance Armstrong's roster spot is likely secure, and I expect him to prove enough when the pads come on to get on the field.
Flashing the ability to win on the edge with speed and bend at Kansas, Armstrong has all of the traits needed to develop as a right end that will have no problem staying on the field as a run defender either – handling blocks with ideal leverage and power.
Linebacker Chris Covington
Scouting Report: “Sean's Scout: LB Chris Covington Likely Finds Home on Special Teams”
As far as value goes for their draft picks, Cowboys Linebacker Chris Covington is unfortunately near the bottom of this list. Partially due to the exceptional value the Cowboys found in Connor Williams and Michael Gallup on day two, there is a clear path ahead for Covington to help this team in 2018.
While I have a hard time believing it will be on defense as a LB that lacks the reactionary ability or strength to fit any of the three positions, Covington should be viewed as a replacement for both Keith Smith and Kyle Wilber.
Ready to contribute on special teams as both Smith and Wilber did so well, Covington is of course further depth entering the roster-building process for Dallas at one of their weakest positions (as of just a few weeks ago).
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The level of competition on the Cowboys roster has only increased with each passing draft class, as the organization has shifted to primarily building with young talent. Acquiring three talented rookies to help their defense take the “next step”, standing out and earning the star won't come easy for Vander Esch, Armstrong, or Covington.
Come week one in Carolina though, I expect all three to be active players for the Cowboys against the Panthers, with Vander Esch and Armstrong playing key roles in an incredibly deep front seven.