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Cowboys LBs Have Quickly Gone From Perceived Strength to Liability

Two years ago the Dallas Cowboys seemed to have the league’s next great linebacker duo in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. But the last two seasons of disappointing injuries and performance have taken nearly all the bloom off the rose. As our Position Preview series for the 2021 offseason continues, we look at the shaky situation Dallas now finds itself in at linebacker.

At the end of 2018, we had Vander Esch making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and Jaylon Smith was seen as a snub, with some arguing he had an even better year than Leighton. They were compared to the likes of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs as the future leaders of the Cowboys defense.

Unfortunately, Vander Esch’s body soon betrayed him as a neck issue cost him seven games in 2019 and had him playing hesitantly when he was active. After having surgery hopefully solve the issue last offseason, Leighton would then miss six games in 2020 with a broken collarbone.

Injuries haven’t been an issue for Jaylon, which is remarkable given how he entered the NFL. Though he hasn’t missed a game since 2017, Smith’s level of play saw some decline in 2019 and took an even steeper drop last season.

2021 Linebacker Contract Statuses

  • Signed
    • Francis Bernard
    • Luke Gifford
    • Azur Kamara
    • Jaylon Smith
    • Leighton Vander Esch
  • Free Agents
    • Sean Lee (U)
    • Justin March (U)
    • Joe Thomas (U)
U = Unrestricted, R = Restricted, E = Exclusive Rights

Jaylon was vocal last year about displeasure with the new defensive scheme under Mike Nolan. The Cowboys seemed to agree as they fired Nolan quickly after the season, but there’s no guarantee that the change in coordinator will solve all the issues identified in Smith’s 2020 performance.

Even when he was healthy last year Vander Esch also struggled. Neither player was making the kind of backfield disruptions, quick stops on runs, or athletic plays in coverage that we enjoyed back in 2018.

Interesting decisions lie ahead for the Cowboys regarding their fading binary star. They have to make a choice on Leighton’s 5th-year option for 2022 in a few months, plus they have to weigh keeping Jaylon’s big contract on the books when they have a reasonable opportunity this year to escape it.

If Dallas picks up the option on Vander Esch for 2022 then it could pay him around $13 million for that one season. That wouldn’t be bad if he’s back to 2018 form but could be a major albatross on the salary cap if Leighton is still struggling.

That contract would also be guaranteed against injury, which is an even bigger concern given Vander Esch’s recent history.

As for Smith, Dallas could make him a June-1st cut in 2021 and clear over $7 million off the cap. While it wouldn’t help during free agency in March, it could help pay for rookies or for Dak Prescott’s next contract.

If these concerns weren’t enough to deal with, the Cowboys are also facing a major exodus of depth with other linebackers’ expiring contracts.

Will Cowboys Have to Choose Between LBs Sean Lee and Joe Thomas?
Dallas Cowboys linebackers Sean Lee & Joe Thomas

Sean Lee and Joe Thomas are both set to become free agents. It’s generally believed that Lee will retire this offseason, having publicly contemplated it in previous seasons. But even if the veteran did return his impact on the field is greatly reduced now.

Thomas has been a solid depth player the last few years and could probably be re-signed without much expense. His presence would be almost essential in 2021 if The General does call it a career.

Even Justin March, who played more special teams than defense in four seasons with Dallas, is heading into free agency. This leaves the Cowboys with the inexperienced Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, and Azur Kamara as the only other backup linebackers currently under contract

Gifford and Bernard have both earned cult followings as prospects but have yet to get meaningful playing time in games. The Cowboys wouldn’t lean on them as depth even in the best of times, and especially not when there are big concerns about the starters.

That makes linebacker a significant topic for the 2021 offseason. Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, Dallas will likely seek to add at least one proven or perceived talent to the group.

Even if Joe Thomas gets re-signed the Cowboys will want one more solid depth option. And if they can find someone to push or eventually replace Vander Esch or Smith if needed, that’s not a bad idea based on current circumstances.

Sure, it’s reasonable to hope that Dan Quinn’s arrival will help fix what’s gone wrong with Jaylon Smith. And although Vander Esch’s health is not a scheme issue, we certainly want to see Leighton being more effective when he is able to play.

Dallas may be forced to hope for the best at linebacker as they address other positions on the defense. They at least have Smith and Vander Esch under contract for 2021, which is more than can be said for the impending free agency of multiple players in the secondary.

But even if they give Jaylon and Leighton one more chance to carry the position, Dallas will clearly still have to address depth at linebacker with Lee, Thomas, and others potentially on the way out.

~ ~ ~

Other Cowboys 2021 Position Previews

QB | RB | WR | TE | OT | C | G

DE | DT | CB | S

Special Teams

(Click the position above to jump to the article. Links will become active as articles are published.)

What do you think?

Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

Comments

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  1. I would say perceived liability would be a good description as well. I want to see what these guys can do in Dan Quinn’s system before giving up on them. I do hope they can bring Thomas back and find some young blood in the draft as well.

  2. It’s crazy how the tides can turn , we went from saying J Smith and LVE are elite LBs and we also said that guys like Chido and X Woods had potential in them of becoming elite great players , now LBs is a liability and we’re trying to figure out if we should bring back Chido and it looks like we aren’t (which i’m glad) bringing back X Woods

  3. If you don’t give your players playing time people will always say we only have inexperience players. Give them a chance and see what they got. Just look at D Wilson once he got the chance boom starting safety. We always want other teams castoffs. Have trust in the players you draft.

  4. Really? These linebackers are NOT liabilities. The defensive tackle positions are the MAIN liabilities. Get some good defensive tackles which PREVENT the the offensive line from getting to the linebackers, then the problem is solved. This article is a joke.

  5. I think both Smith and Vander Esch have the talent but for different reasons they lost a step. Everyone should stop attacking Jaylon the defense has a whole was horrible last year. As for Vander Each I think all the injuries have him in his own head a little bit. I think if Quinn can introduce a defense similar to what they ran before Nolan then I believe they can go back to being good LBs. I’d like for Dallas to resign Thomas for depth as he has proven valuable.

  6. I wouldn’t mind us draft a Parsons, to patrol the middle of our defense. We need a difference maker badly, and he may be just that.

    We can talk about schemes etc, but J Smith takes bad angles, point blank, when opposition player is square in front of him, and cannot make the tackle. I don’t know what a “Quinn” scheme can do at that point in time, to change that outcome. I’ve seen that happen repeatedly this past year. Also, he is not great at stacking and shedding. Too many tackles well beyond LOS. LVE showed promise early on, but now appears to be somewhat injury prone and has regressed from his rookie year.

    This is something some folks here commented about previously. In other, we saw this coming and this should be addressed at draft time or with FA, if we want to start a rebuild of our shaky defense.

  7. VAM- Good spot on post as usual. Yea I’m with u on Parsons. He looks like a guy that can do alot of things really well. Those that think a LB isn’t worthy of a high pick, look no further than Tampa Bay LB Devin White who was making plays all over the field in the SB, including an interception on P Mahomes. He was selected with the #5 overall pick in 2019. We need impact defenders period and Parsons looks like the best one in the draft.

    As far as the current cowboy LBs I think an improved D line and better coaching might help to a degree but I look at it the same as when I assess ZEKE. It doesn’t take an expert to see that these guys just don’t have it. ZEKE and Smith are two of our highest pd players. They need to be making plays and be difference makers. When ur highest pd players aren’t delivering ur in trouble. It’s painful watching Smith sometimes. He’s like a locomotive. When he gets there he can do some damage. But it takes him a while to build up steam and get to the point of attack. Give him a little misdirection and he’s out of the play. As far as Zeke goes u need a sun dial to time how long it takes him to hit a hole. Way too many rushes for no gain. Improved OL will help a little, but it won’t make him quicker or faster.

  8. This post has many errors. Does the website have an editor? I’m an English teacher. I’ll be happy to read your contributions and edit them before you post. I understand that you are pressured to be first, but you could benefit from an editor.

    • Much appreciated, Mr. Bryson. As a fan-run site, I’m not shooting for hyper-polished articles. I prefer to keep it a little more down to earth in that respect. You are right, however. There were mistakes that needed to be fixed. Thanks for pointing that out.

  9. I think it’s petty when a guy offers a post for the sole purpose of criticizing someone’s English or spelling. Nobody cares about that dude. Nobody is impressed ur an English teacher. I don’t recall a football related post from you. These guys work hard to churn out these articles. You think anyone in here cares that they aren’t perfect. Incidentally I’m sure you found many errors in my post. NERD lol

  10. Hey Gary b, that “sun dial” comment made me laugh out loud. I guess l’ve never seen those words used to describe a football player before..

  11. Gary b, and Vam…. You guys do know that LB isn’t Parsons natural position right…. He’s just started playing that position recently!! And he’s no different than Jaylon Smith, the only thing he’ll be decent at is maybe rushing the QB…. He’s not good in coverage and he has a hard time stopping the run…. You wanna bring up how Devin white played for Tampa Bay, but Parsons is NOT EVEN CLOSE to a Devin white…. Devin white is a do it all LB, while parson is not!! Jok and Zaven Collins will be better options at LB than Parsons, but if it was me I’d wait until the 2nd or 3rd round and draft Jabril Cox out of LSU…. He’s an underrated LB that should be higher on draft boards…. He can stop the run, he can rush the QB and he can even go out in coverage and stay with TEs and RBs! That’s the kind of LB we need, not another Jaylon Smith!!

  12. Cowboys fan, Parsons played DE in high school. At Penn St he played only LB. In 2018 as a freshman, he led the team with 82 tackles, while only starting one game. In 2019, recorded 109 tackles, 14 TFL, 5 sacks, 5 Pass Def, 4 FF, 1 FR. First Team Freshman All American in 2018. First Team All Big Ten, Consensus All American, and Butkus-Fitzgerald LB of the Year in 2019.

    He must be stopping someone.

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