In 2018, the emergence of Jaylon Smith and then-rookie Leighton Vander Esch gave the Cowboys one of if not the best linebacker duo in the NFL. Sprinkle in veteran Sean Lee and you can make the case it was the best unit if it's kind in the league. They took a slight step back last season, especially with Vander Esch missing basically half the season with a neck issue.
Now, they're all back healthy and expected to be ready for the start of the 2020 season. Earlier this week, Pro Football Focus ranked to top linebacker units in the NFL and the Cowboys were ranked second behind the Seattle Seahawks group.
Smith finished tied for sixth in the league with 142 tackles in 2019, a career-high. He was more as a blitzer last season, and although he was pretty effective he tended to be a liability in coverage. Back in April, Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported the Smith could possibly be switching to outside linebacker. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is implementing a hybrid scheme with 4-3 and 3-4 looks along the defensive line and a “designated pass rusher” role which is ideal for Smith. Letting him roam on the outside and make plays will serve well for this unit this season.
Vander Esch was coming off of a second-team All-Pro/Pro Bowl season as a rookie after registering 140 tackles. Unfortunately, in 2019 he dealt with a lingering neck issue that eventually ended his season in November. After successful neck surgery in January, Vander Esch is expected to make a full recovery and feels great about the upcoming season. In May, he spoke with Bobby Belt and Jane Slater of ‘The Boys and Girl podcast about how he feels heading into 2020. “I am doing wonderful,” Vander Esch said. “I feel as good now as I ever have before I even got hurt. I mean I'm ready to roll. I've been training full-go for a couple of months now, so it's not holding me back whatsoever.” A very encouraging sign.
Lee, or “The General” as he's called by the fans, was a blessing in disguise last season once Vander Esch went down. After several years of battling his own injuries, Lee appeared in all 16 games (13 starts) for the first time in his career and recorded almost 90 tackles. In consecutive games vs the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants around midseason, you can argue he was the best defensive player for the Cowboys as he led the team in tackles in both contests. He may be a little long in the tooth but it's clear that Lee still has plenty left in the tank.
Joe Thomas provides solid veteran leadership behind the top three, with Luke Gifford and Justin March adding more depth. The Cowboys will need Smith and Vander Esch to return to their 2018 form and Lee to remain healthy if they want to get this defense back to a high level after regressing last season.