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Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker

Tommy Simon

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Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 8

In the last article, we looked at the ILB position and possible players and strategies for the Cowboys. We looked at both free agents and draft prospects that could fill the Cowboys needs. Today I will look at the Outside Linebackers (OLB).

Before we get started, let’s look at the current state of the LB core.

The Cowboys will lose their starting strong LB (SAM LB), and their middle LB (MIKE LB), so they will need to replace two positions. The good news is that they have several returning players including Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, and Andrew Gachkar. Hitchens can fill the middle LB position, though it is preferred he provide depth rather than start. Currently there is no one slotted at the starting SAM. So the Cowboys will need at least one starting LB, if not two.

With that out of the way, let’s start with possible free agents. Typically the Cowboys prefer:

  • No one older than 30 years
  • Speed; they like fast LBs
  • The SAM needs to have long arms and have the strength to play at the point of attack
  • Coverage; they need to be able to carry the TE on the seam and back in the flat

Possible Free Agents:

  • Bruce Irvin (Seattle) – Would be my dream get, but it will probably cost too much. Irvin, probably could be the starting MIKE or he could fill the starting SAM as well.
  • Nigel Bradham (Bills) – A good fit, but it will likely cost 5 mil a year.
  • Emmanuel Lamur (Bengals) – Coming off injury. His best position will be the SAM LB position; he will be affordable, but he may not have the talent level needed.
  • Frank Zombo – would be added depth and a special teamer
  • Tahir Whitehead – Could compete for starting SAM, but would likely be added depth
  • Justin Durant – Been with the Cowboys before. Would not surprise me if he came back on a two year contract.

It is a pretty small group of free agents SAMs that fit the Cowboys scheme. It is likely the Cowboys will fill it in the draft. So who is available in the draft?

Before we review some possible draft prospects the Cowboys could look at to fill the SAM position, let’s look at attributes we evaluate in a LB.

These are 10 traits that I look at when evaluating LBs:

  1. Overall Quickness and Speed
  2. Instincts – Do they have awareness, can they quickly diagnose a play, and do they recognize patterns (routes, runs, formations)?
  3. Aggressiveness – Do they attack or sit back and wait?
  4. Tackling – Are they fundamentally sound tacklers and do they knock runners backwards?
  5. Pursuit – Can they get through traffic to make play? Do they over pursue?
  6. Power – Can they stop the pile, runner or blocker?
  7. Hand Skills – Do they use hands to control blocker, shed, and tackle?
  8. Are the disciplined?
  9. Are they a Playmaker – Do they create turnovers and can they blitz? Can they create negative yardage and big hits?
  10. Coverage – Can they cover TEs and RBs?

With that in mind, let’s look at the players in the draft that the Cowboys will evaluate.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Inside LinebackerMyles Jack (UCLA)

Strengths

  • When he hits a linemen, then linemen goes backwards
  • A great combination of athleticism and attitude
  • A big hitter, you go down when he hits you
  • Fast; can get sideline to sideline with ease
  • Good motor; always making his way to ball
  • Always going forward to attack runner
  • Best coverage LB I have seen in a while. Almost played a type of slot corner in some situations
  • Best when he is attacking the line and hitting gaps
  • Has good instincts and awareness of what is going on and is decisive and aggressive
  • Can read, diagnose and then attack
  • Playmaker, he create mayhem
  • Pop with his hands, can shock blockers
  • Tries to hurt you when he hits you
  • Good open field tackler
  • A freak athlete

Weaknesses

  • He is not a good edge rusher
  • Needs more techniques and feel when blitzing
  • Can get dumb penalties because of passion

Summary

  • My apologies to Broaddus. I did not think he was a middle backer and thought he was a finesse player, but he can play all three LB positions and he brings an attitude.
  • He is my highest rated inside backer and next week he will be my highest rated outside backer.
  • Great in coverage. Complete three down back.
  • For the Cowboys he would be an immediate starter as middle LB. A playmaker that can give the defense attitude and turnovers.
  • I would still drop down to gain picks, but not a bad option at 4.
  • I would have him as a first round, impact player (top 10 player). I currently have him as the second highest rated defensive player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Inside Linebacker 1Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame)

Strengths

  • Fast sideline to sideline. Covers a lot of ground and can beat the runner to the edge.
  • Can weave through traffic, stretch play out without over pursuing.
  • He is fluid in coverage. Can carry seam or back in flat.
  • Smart, knows what his responsibility is and is disciplined enough to carry it out.
  • Can take on blockers, shed and tackle.
  • Really good athlete
  • Has some attitude
  • Has good feel on blitz
  • Will bring some pop when tackling
  • Understands zone coverage concepts
  • Good production, always near ball
  • Will run down plays from behind. Doesn’t give up on play

Weaknesses

  • Would like to see him come forward more and not wait for runners to come to him
  • Guesses at which hole the RB will take, and guessed wrong several times
  • If middle LB will be his role, he will need to get stronger at point of attack

Summary

  • I think his best position is Will, but can play MIKE or SAM.
  • Will make a ton of tackles in the NFL. Could see him leading the league eventually
  • Good in man and in zone coverages. Probably better in man though
  • For Cowboys he would be an immediate starter and a good combo at MIKE with Lee.
  • Is a playmaker that can get three to four picks a year.
  • I may not recommend drafting him at 5, but dropping down later around 12-15 range and getting him would be a great move.
  • I would have him as a mid -first rounder (top 10 player)

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside LinebackerLeonard Floyd (Georgia)

Strengths

  • A mixture of quickness and speed
  • Maybe the best edge rusher in the draft
  • Great bend when coming around the corner. Draws a lot of holding calls
  • An explosive first step that allows him to be disruptive.
  • Has the knack for making the big play. Creates turnovers
  • Can get penetration in the middle or around the edge
  • Good motor, always making his way to ball
  • Pretty good awareness dropping in coverage
  • He covered the slot receiver on a couple of occasions and did a pretty good job
  • Tall enough to cover a Tight End down the middle

Weaknesses

  • Needs to add thickness and strength
  • Lost awareness of where runner was on a couple of plays
  • When playing inside, was more of a side to side player than a downhill thumper
  • When playing inside, got caught up in the traffic too often

Summary

  • Natural position is outside on the edge
  • His best position will probably be a 34 outside backer
  • He is neck and neck with Jaylon Smith as the second best linebacker. Personally I like him better in a 34 and Smith in a 43.
  • If he can add weight, he could become a DE. He would be in the top 3 to 5 as a DE as well.
  • A playmaker, he changes the game with his rush
  • A big game player, he excels when challenged.
  • Someone is going to get a player who could compete for rookie of the year. He is that talented. He has a high upside as well.
  • For the Cowboys, he could play Will or SAM. Probably the starting SAM and then be a third down pass rush specialist.
  • I do not think there is anyway the Cowboys could get him in the second, but if that happens they should run to the podium. He could be an option if they trade back to 15-20 to pick up an additional second and third rounder.
  • I have him rated as a top 15 - 20 rated player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Inside Linebacker 3Jordan Jenkins (Georgia)

Strengths

  • Strong, physical and tough
  • Versatile - played inside, outside, DE and DT at Georgia.
  • Can get to the QB from the outside or inside
  • Can tackle, will drive runners backwards
  • Can make offensive linemen look bad. Quick to the hole, can shift and dart through a gap
  • Is aggressive, attacks at all times. Always moving forward.
  • Will take on blockers. Multiple blockers most times.
  • Looks to have a great size/speed ratio
  • Plays big on the big stage
  • Is a sure tackler

Weaknesses

  • As a linebacker will need to show he can drop in coverage. Georgia did not ask him to do that
  • Not sure what his 40 will be. Needs to show speed not just bursts
  • Can get caught with misdirection at times.
  • When playing edge, teams let him get up field and run underneath him.

Summary

  • Very versatile. He is the second or third best outside linebacker in a 34 or he could be one of the best middle linebackers in a 43. He probably would be a two down backer in a 43, but he could also become a rusher (inside or outside) in passing situations.
  • He is someone that the combine could really help or hurt. His 40 should tell us if he has the speed to play linebacker. His shuttle times will show us if he can play middle, and his bench press will tell if he has the strength to play DE. He could gain size or slim down depending what he wants scouts to see. My guess is he will slim down and try to be a linebacker.
  • He could be a high pick if his measurable are there, or he could be a mid-round pick if he does not have measurable that match a position (i.e. the 40 time of a linemen, but a bench press and weight of a linebacker). He needs measurables that match a position or he will be a tweener.
  • He is my pet cat. I think he could wind up being an enforcer as a middle linebacker. Maybe not a cover LB but a run stopping enforcer. Even if he is not the best pure middle linebacker, he is definitely a SAM linebacker. I think SAM and middle will be his best positions in a 43. But he would excel in a 34.
  • For the Cowboys, he would be starting SAM, backup MIKE, and situational edge rusher. He definitely has position flex.
  • He may be there when the Cowboys pick in the third (I have him rated higher than most). If he is, they should draft him and then figure out where to play him.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 1

Darron Lee (Ohio State)

Strengths

  • A good chance he will post the fastest 40 time for LBs at the combine.
  • Can get to the ball quick. Will see, explode and attack
  • Has a knack for finding the gap in the blitz from the inside or outside. Can find the hole to the QB and explode through for the sack.
  • Not afraid of mixing it up, will take on a blocker and try to disengage.
  • Has the speed to cover both in zone and man-to-man.
  • Can weave in and out of traffic laterally to make the tackle.
  • Played inside and outside. Has some versatility
  • Seems to have knack for making a big play in pivotal moments

Weaknesses

  • Needs to add size and strength
  • When playing middle can get moved back by blocks
  • Would not call him an enforcer
  • He wins with his athleticism, not always with awareness
  • At times needs to take better angles

Summary

  • Natural position is the weakside where he can us his speed to run down plays
  • Will be a tackling machine in the right system because of his talent level
  • Will be a great third down back because of his athleticism and cover skills
  • For the Cowboys, he would play the will LB. I do not see the versatility to play SAM or Mike.
  • He might be an option for the Cowboys with the second pick
  • I have him rated as a top 35 - 40 player

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Inside Linebacker 5Joshua Perry (Ohio State)

Strengths

  • Physical linebacker with good size.
  • Best trait is his ability to take on blockers and shed them to make tackle
  • His hands are what makes him a top 50 player. Can use them to keep blockers at bay and then go get the runner.
  • Played inside and outside. Has some versatility
  • Good at timing blitzes from the inside
  • When paying outside, is big enough to set edge
  • Can weave in and out of traffic laterally to make the tackle
  • Good against run. Strong and can get movement backwards to disrupt line
  • Long strider which cause him to have good speed/size ratio
  • Most times he has good recognition on screens and misdirection
  • Aggressive

Weaknesses

  • His long strides make him vulnerable in space. He can get himself off balance
  • Short area quickness will be a problem
  • He can miss tackles on the edge
  • Good instincts, but at times that can get him in trouble as he loses awareness of ball
  • Susceptible to cut blocks, although hands keep him out of trouble a lot

Summary

  • I believe his natural position is the SAM, but may be better as a MIKE. In fact, he may wind up as a middle LB as his career progresses.
  • His size is an asset against the run and he is athletic enough to drop in coverage if needed.
  • Probably will not be a three down back. Will come off in third down packages to start his career. Although if he moves to the middle he does have the size and speed to carry a TE. I do not think he will ever be great in coverage.
  • If available, I could see the Cowboys picking him up with their third. He could fill the SAM LB role and give them depth as a backup Middle.
  • I have him rated as a top 65 player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 2Kyler Fackrell (Utah State)

Strengths

  • Rushing the QB. He has the best hesitation and change of pace of any pass rusher I have seen in this draft. Uses hesitation well.
  • Has well developed pass rushing moves. Can rush edge or inside.
  • Knows how to set up blockers. May not have the quickest first step, but knows how to set up the blocker to get edge
  • Great motor, always moving to ball. Will chase all the way across the field.
  • Hard worker
  • Good with hands, can keep blockers at bay.
  • Can set edge.
  • Good short area quickness

Weaknesses

  • Struggles in space
  • Not the most athletic or fastest
  • Will struggle in coverage
  • Is hesitant when runner is coming directly at him. Can get flat footed

Summary

  • Natural position will be in a 34 outside linebacker position.
  • May not be starter early in his career but can contribute as a pass rusher now.
  • Has more pass rush moves than other players in draft
  • Uses change of pace very effectively and can set up blocker to get them off balance.
  • For Cowboys, he would need to convert to a pass rushing DE. He would not fit them as a linebacker. Doubt he will fit the Cowboys scheme.
  • I have him rated as a top 75 -80 player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 3Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 4Deion Jones (LSU)

Strengths

  • Looks the part. Well put together with good combination of power and speed.
  • Good natural athletic ability
  • Downhill player, see it and attacks. No hesitation
  • Shows up on tape. Makes big plays. Kind of player that can change the course of a game
  • Good at the delayed blitz, sees hole and shoots
  • Not great at man coverage, but can play zone and has good instincts. His instincts cover some technique deficiencies.
  • Can run to the ball. Covers a lot of ground quickly.
  • Is a hitter. The runner goes backwards when hit.
  • His style of linebacking should translate well to the NFL. He is physical with receivers and runners alike.
  • Has a good motor, will continue to pursue until the play is over

Weaknesses

  • Needs to play more. Not a lot of playing time. More play time will help him to develop his awareness and instincts.
  • Needs better techniques in coverage. His abilities have covered for some technique issues.
  • Can get stuck on blocks. Needs to learn to keep them off with his hands and then shed

Summary

  • Natural position is the Will, but he can also play middle or MIKE. I think middle would be his best position as he plays like an inside backer. However, he is small and can get stuck on blocks. So to start he will play Will or Sam.
  • Needs to add weight. He may be be moved to a MIKE role in his career, so he needs to add 15 pounds.
  • He is an old school type of backer. Physical at point of attack, will stick his nose into the pile and hit someone, and he uses his hands on receivers and running backs.
  • Better at delayed blitzes than coming off edge or shooting the gap.
  • If available, I could see the Cowboys picking him up with their fourth if he is there (most likely not). Most likely they would need to get into the late third to get him. He would give the Cowboys depth and could start at the SAM if necessary.
  • I have him rated as a top 80 – 85 player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 5Kamalei Correa (Boise State)

Strengths

  • Fast, quick edge rusher
  • Athletic, use his speed and athleticism to make plays
  • Disruptive, makes a lot of plays in backfield
  • Will wrap up when making tackle
  • Plays with a little violence in his game.
  • Plays tough, takes on blockers, and has some pop to his game
  • Has a really good motor, always chasing the play
  • Aggressive player who wants to hit. He can set edge

Weaknesses

  • Doesn’t have a lot of moves, uses speed to make plays
  • Needs to use hands better
  • Raw, awareness needs to be better.
  • Teams can use his aggressive nature to counter back inside
  • Can over run plays, too aggressive

Summary

  • Natural position will be in a 34 outside linebacker position.
  • May not be starter early in his career but can contribute as a pass rusher now.
  • His athleticism covers technical issues
  • For Cowboys, he would probably play a SAM linebacker and situational pass rusher
  • I have him rated as a top 90 player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 6Eric Striker (Oklahoma)

Strengths

  • Fast and quick
  • Explosive around the edge. He is a highlight reel. Can really rush passer form edge.
  • Disruptive, always making plays
  • Is decent in man coverage. Can drop in zone.
  • Can cover a lot of ground. Can beat runner to the edge
  • Great on the blitz
  • Athleticism is hard to handle

Weaknesses

  • Plays side to side too much against run. Doesn’t come downhill. Would like to see him attack run better
  • Can be driven backwards but O-line. Can be wiped out.
  • Can get caught up in traffic too much. Gives up ground too often
  • Smaller player who can struggle to get off blocks
  • Takes risks. Some work, some don’t

Summary

  • Got to love the name and game. He is a striker.
  • Natural position is the Will and does not have position flex
  • Needs to add weight and strength and learn leverage to take on blockers.
  • To start his career he will be a contributor and an edge pass rush specialist.
  • He has exceptional speed on the blitz whether around the corner or delaying and hitting the gap. It is his best trait.
  • If available, he could make sense for the Cowboys at the fourth. However, he is a Will and the boys have at least three Wills on the roster now.
  • I have him rated as a top 100 player.

 

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys Roster: Strategies & Players For Outside Linebacker 7Joe Schobert (Wisconsin)

Strengths

  • Smart linebacker who is solid in all phases of the game
  • Has a non-stop motor and will always be near the ball
  • Assignment sound, understands his role
  • Can rush the passer, mostly by just pure effort and quick shifty foot work
  • Plays with awareness, sees the field well
  • Good a diagnosing routes and lanes
  • Good tackling technique. Could be inside backer
  • Good in man coverage against backs
  • Good in special teams coverage

Weaknesses

  • Can miss some tackles in open field
  • Is not as athletic or quick as other LBs, but effort, technique and intelligence make up for it
  • Takes on blockers, but can be pushed backed

Summary

  • Just a solid all-around player. He is someone the Cowboys should keep their eye on. He would be a good get in the fourth round. Reminds me of Gachkar, but better in coverage and blitzing.
  • Combine numbers will be important. He needs to put up a good 40 and shuttle. He has the instincts, he needs to show he also has the athleticism.
  • Could step in and be a starting SAM. He might also be a good MIKE. He has the size.
  • Not a lot of weaknesses, and plays assignment sound, but does not have the upside LBs. What you see is what you will get.
  • For Cowboys he would fill the SAM position, provide depth at MIKE and be a special teams ace
  • I can see the Cowboys getting him in the fourth
  • I have him on the edge of the top 100.

 

Jatavis Brown (Brown)

Strengths

  • A hitter, will bring some pop
  • Will work through traffic to get a hit on the runner
  • Good timing when blitzing gaps
  • Plays with attitude, he is an enforcer
  • Will be a consistent 8-10 tackles a game
  • Knows how to read running lanes and will meet the runner in the right gap
  • Can shed blocks
  • Plays with good leverage

Weaknesses

  • Need to see more in coverage. Was not asked to do much in college
  • Undersized
  • Is raw in some techniques
  • Can overrun plays. Too aggressive at times

Summary

  • Need to see combine numbers to confirm what I see in the tape.
  • A good LB against the run.
  • He brings some nastiness to his game
  • He will need work, but could be a two down SAM now
  • For Cowboys he would be a backup at the Will and SAM positions and be a special teams player
  • He will be a late fourth round talent.
  • If the Cowboys see him around in the fifth, then he is a value pick they could move up for
  • He is a top 130 player.

 

Strategies The Cowboys Can Employ

As we mentioned in the last article, there are not a lot of mid to late round inside linebackers in the draft. But there are good outside linebackers. So I expect the Cowboys to address the MIKE position in free agency and the Sam LB in the draft.

If the Cowboys do not go for Jack or Smith in the first round, then they have some good options in round 2-4. Immediate starters that would fit their scheme include Perry, Lee and Jenkins. Mid round contributors to look for are Deion Jones and Joe Schobert (he is a good value pick). A later round guy to look out for is Brown’s LB Jatavis Brown.

If the Cowboys do look at free agency to solve their LB needs, the best option may be Bobby Wagner. He could play MIKE and/or SAM. Nigel Bradham is a lesser known name, but he would be a great option. Personally, I do not think the Cowboys will pay the money for Bradham, but they may be able to work a deal to bring back Justin Durant. Finally, if they just want to add depth at a cost effective price, Tahir Whitehead may be a good option.

The strategy I would employee is to look to trade down to say 15 and pick up a second and third (may have to switch 4ths) and look at options like Smith, Ragland, and come back later in the draft for depth with Schobert, Jones, or Brown. If they only get one linebacker, then they can come back and look at signing a free agent to fill any gaps.

Next week we will look at the defensive backs. Look for the strategies and players for corners and safeties.



Tommy Simon is an entrepreneur, writer, speaker and sports enthusiast. He is currently CEO of TechBAA, an investor and board member of TPC Technical and CommunitesFIrst, and acting CFO for ALS Communities. In addition to investing and advising companies, Tommy is also a Sales Management coach and is working with companies as a Fractional CMO/CSO. Tommy is a life long football player, coach and Cowboy fan. He currently coaches and sponsors several 7 on 7 teams. He manages/coaches an adult flag football team that is the top team in Florida one of the highest ranked teams in the country. Tommy's hobbies include international travel, fantasy football, reading, and engaging in intelligent political discourse. He is married to a wonderful women for 18 years; which is the best thing he has ever accomplished. He has a dog that is the best dog ever. He also has 9 siblings and roughly 30 nieces and nephews. For more information about tommy, or to request him to speak, please contact him at info@techbaa.com

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys Headlines -  76

For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.

A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.

But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.

Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.

The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.

Geoff Swaim

Dallas Cowboys TE Geoff Swaim

Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.

We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.

In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.

Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.

With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.

But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.

The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.



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Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith

Jess Haynie

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#DALvsIND: 5 Cowboys Storylines To Watch In Preseason Week 2 1

No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.

Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.

After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.

Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great,  but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.

Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.

This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.

5 Positives for Cowboys Heading Into the Off-Season

Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith

With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.

True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.

Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.

But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.

That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.

Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.



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Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?

Sean Martin

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Despite Late Push in Year One, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See the Field in 2018? 1
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.

These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.

Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.

Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?

Dallas Cowboys DE Taco Charlton, DT Maliek Collins (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.

This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.

Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.

The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.

It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.

Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.

As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.

For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.

Tell us what you think about "Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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