Things have changed when it comes to the linebacker position with the Dallas Cowboys. At one time, it was suggested that they had the best trio in the NFL with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch. However, in just a short time, the position has become a weak spot and sits at the forefront of the Cowboy’s defensive issues this offseason.
Lee made a switch before the 2019 season from weakside linebacker to the strongside position. The thought was that since the Cowboys mostly operated out of a nickel package that Smith and Vander Esch would get the bulk of the snaps, keeping Lee fresh and away from injuries, which he’s had too many of. It worked at first, as Lee finished with almost 90 tackles that season and played in 16 games for the first time in his career.
2020 was a different story, but unfortunately, it resembled a page from an old book. Lee underwent sports hernia surgery in September and missed the first seven games. When he did take the field there wasn’t much to brag about. He had four games with just one tackle and only had one game with more than five stops which didn’t come until the season finale against the New York Giants. His 20 tackles were a career-low, and at 34 years old (35 when the season starts) it calls into question what more he has left in the tank.
Smith has overcome a lot just to be able to play in the NFL. After a gruesome knee injury in his final collegiate game in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl that could’ve ended his career, Smith battled his way back to the playing field in 2017 and showed flashes of what he could be. After a productive 121 tackle performance in 2018, Smith signed a five-year, $64 million dollar extension with $35.5 million in guaranteed money.
If you just look at his stats in 2019 Smith was amazing with 142 tackles, however, what was seen on film wasn’t all that great. He began to take horrible angles when trying to bring down ball carriers and even missed a bunch of tackles. Also, he looked completely lost in coverage. This season was much of the same as he looked extremely slow covering fast running backs out of the backfield. The Cowboys can get out of his contract if need be, and although that seems unlikely, his regression is eye-opening.
Vander Esch took the NFL by storm in 2018 after being selected 19th overall. His 140 tackles led the Cowboys and garnered him Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors. Just a year later, however, things started to trend downward. Vander Esch suffered a neck injury that forced him to miss seven games. He had offseason surgery to repair the issue and was seemingly healthy entering the 2020 season, but the didn’t last long.
He suffered a broken collarbone in the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams. He only missed four games, but when he returned there wasn’t much to cheer about. Vander Esch got sealed off too many times in the run game and took bad angles which led to big gains for opposing offenses. He would miss the final two games with an ankle injury. So not only has his play regressed like Smith but he’s started to get the injury bug much as Lee has had throughout his career.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Cowboys address the position rather it be in free agency, the NFL draft, or both. Regardless of their plan, it’s clear that the linebacker spot has to improve if this defense wants to get back to a respectable level, unlike its putrid performance this season that allowed 473 points, the most in team history.