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
- Free Agents
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.
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.
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.
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