In 2018 when the Dallas Cowboys drafted Leighton Vander Esch, the team was set up to have a three-headed monster at linebacker. Unfortunately that season, Sean Lee only played in seven games due to multiple hamstring injuries. Last season, Vander Esch missed seven games with a neck issue which he had surgically repaired in January.
Now, both men are fully healthy heading into the 2020 season, and when you factor in Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys have a great shot at seeing what this trio can do for a full 16 games.
Lee, the elder statesman of the group, re-signed with the Cowboys back in March, and it isn't hard to understand why. For the first time in his career, Lee was available for a full season in 2019 and showed he still has plenty left in the tank. He finished with 86 tackles as the third option at linebacker, including a two-game stretch vs the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles midseason where he was the best defensive player on the field for the Cowboys.
This can be attributed to Lee switching to strongside linebacker last season in order to reduce his snaps and not have the same amount of physicality put on his body when he was playing middle linebacker. Another full season of Lee, who's obviously still capable of playing at a high level, will benefit the linebacker core immensely.
Vander Esch, after coming off of a Pro Bowl/All-Pro rookie season, was on his way to another productive season in 2019 before his unfortunate neck issue. The concern afterward was whether or not this would linger long-term, but in a recent interview with Bobby Belt and Jane Slater of The ‘Boys and Girl podcast, Vander Esch made it clear he is more than ready for this upcoming season.
“I am doing wonderful,” he 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 switch to middle linebacker looks imminent for Vander Esch, which is the most taxing of the linebacker spots. However, with no limitations, he should get back to being the “Wolf Hunter” we all know and are used to.
Lastly, there's Jaylon Smith. Even though statistically he had his best season with 142 tackles in 2019, he wasn't the same as the year before when it came to reaction time, making tackles, and coverage. Smith is at his best when he can read and react in space and attack the line of scrimmage as a blitzer. Mike Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported last month that Smith could possibly switch spots and move to outside linebacker.
Mike Nolan, the Cowboys new defensive coordinator, will still run a base 4-3 but will have some 3-4 principles and use multiple looks upfront to keep teams off-balance. This will include a designated pass rusher role which is ideal for Smith, and he's more than willing to embrace it.
“Really just some added tools for myself, man,” Smith said. “Being able to showcase my versatility, you know being able to run sideline-to-sideline, being able to rush the passer. I'm just looking forward to being able to showcase all of my talents. These guys are putting everyone in the right position, so all I can be is thankful.”
So now, the Cowboys have all three of their top linebackers back and healthy for this season. Hopefully, in their third season together, they can all stay off the injury report and maximize the potential of this trio and get the Cowboys defense back to form.