The Dallas Cowboys will be in Oxnard on Saturday, signaling the start of a training camp that could not get here soon enough. These practices and upcoming August 3rd Hall of Fame game will signal a full return to football for the defending NFC East Champions, yet this young team still has plenty of big questions on both sides of the ball.
Putting the offensive issues – both on and off the field – aside for a moment, Rod Marinelli's front seven on the Cowboys' defense still lacks juice at defensive end despite addressing the position with their 28th overall pick Taco Charlton.
The larger concern may be at linebacker though, where the Jaylon Smith saga took another recent turn with the positive news that he won't practice further with the AFO brace being followed by a still-lengthy six to nine month prognosis for full nerve regeneration in his knee.
More news on Jaylon Smith per source. Recent tests show increased nerve regeneration. If continues, could see full return in the 6-9 months.
— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) July 20, 2017
It is still very possible that Jaylon Smith makes an impact for the Cowboys in 2017, something to being excited about following through this camp, but being prepared for essentially another season without him is likely the best way to avoid disappointment for Cowboys Nation.
Even more disappointing was the recent offseason development for promising LB Damien Wilson, who looked in line to earn a larger role at SAM and potentially MIKE. Instead, Wilson is awaiting league discipline following his arrest for aggravated assault.
The Cowboys have plenty of bodies at defensive end, and some rushers with real promise heading into 2017. Neither of these things can be said now at linebacker, with Anthony Hitchens slotted to remain the starter at MIKE, Sean Lee written in stone at WILL, and any combination of Mark Nzeocha (who is working back from injury once again), Kyle Wilber, recently re-signed Justin Durant, or UDFA Kennan Gilchrist filling in at the base SAM position.
Optimism does not have to be incredibly high for the Cowboys' group of defensive ends to think they'll outperform the linebackers behind them.
There should be realistic expectations for Benson Mayowa to improve at RDE, Taco Charlton to progress as the season goes on, Charles Tapper to throw his name into the rotation, and David Irving to return in week 5 and make flash plays. All of this comes on top of having DeMarcus Lawrence back in a contract season and Damontre Moore signed from the Seahawks as a pass rusher with real potential to put pressure on the quarterback off the right edge with some consistent disruption.
Who can we expect improvement from at LB in 2017?
While the Cowboys' young group of DEs will warrant some promise leading up to the regular season, the linebacker corps will unfortunately feature more of the same. There isn't a “bad” starter by any means at LB for the Cowboys currently, but can Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens hold up once again as the team's primary middle-of-the-field defenders?
Sure, some UDFA LBs like Lucas Wacha or journeyman John Lotulelei can warrant some training camp buzz, but the Cowboys feel that they've completely retooled and not rebuilt their defense in order to contend in 2017 with young starters galore.
A position that will appear untouched – probably for the worse – is linebacker.
Is this a good time to remind you that 2017 was the first year since 2004 the Cowboys did not draft a LB, entering the draft on the perceived same page as Cowboys Nation that DE was a more pressing need.
When one problem has emerged for the Cowboys this summer, a second has never been far behind. Finally fortifying the edge depth on this team will be looked at as an overwhelming positive, but is it going to come at the cost of diminished linebacker play?