Our 2020 Offseason Preview series continues with the linebacker position, which has some unique challenges right now compared to most other spots on the team. Despite two rising stars being under contract, some worries about those players and major depth issues make linebacker another priority concern for the Dallas Cowboys this year.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will be back as your key starters, which does alleviate worry compared to some other positions. It’s not like having to worry about your starting quarterback, franchise receiver, or top corner being free agents.
2020 Linebacker Contract Statuses
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Jaylon Smith
- Luke Gifford
- Chris Covington
- Free Agents
- Sean Lee (UFA)
- Joe Thomas (UFA)
- Malcolm Smith (UFA)
- Justin March (UFA)
- Ray-Ray Armstrong (UFA)
UFA = Unrestricted
But just being signed for 2020 doesn’t make Leighton or Jaylon sure things. With Vander Esch, the neck issues which cost him seven games in 2019 are scary. Even though the team has assured us that they don’t think it’s career-threatening, the fact that even came into the conversation is a red flag.
As for Jaylon, he was a Pro Bowl alternate last year but left many disappointed with his overall play. Smith didn’t look as dynamic in 2019 as he did prior to getting a long-term contract, and that timing never works out well for public perception.
This isn’t to say that the Cowboys are going to be looking for new starters in 2020. They are counting on the ongoing development and availability of Leighton and Jaylon as foundation pieces of the defense for years to come.
But given some of the issues seen last season, it puts some extra emphasis on making sure Dallas has reliable backups behind these players going forward.
A key figure in that discussion is veteran Sean Lee, who currently scheduled to be a free agent this offseason. Despite turning 34 in July, Lee has stated he plans to keep playing this year even if the Cowboys don’t offer him a new contract.
Sean proved last year that he can still make an impact at times, such as the big win over the Rams when he had a sack and interception. But those moments are fewer and farther between than in the past, and you have to wonder how much Lee could do if an injury forced him into a full-time role again.
Making the decision even tougher is that your next-best backup, Joe Thomas, is also a free agent. Losing both players would be a tremendous blow to the Cowboys’ depth so I expect the team to pursue keeping at least one.
It will be interesting to see if the switch from Jason Garrett to Mike McCarthy at head coach impacts the situation. While Garrett would’ve felt loyalty to Sean Lee, McCarthy had Thomas for over three seasons in Green Bay.
Another veteran option is Malcolm Smith, the former Super Bowl MVP who Dallas signed to get through the final few weeks of 2019. Smith was able to have an immediate positive impact, but was it enough that the Cowboys might factor him into future plans?
While all of these free agents are a concern, the cupboard isn’t completely bare behind Vander Esch and Smith. Young prospects Luke Gifford and Chris Covington are still under contract and should at least compete for playing time in 2020.
But even if Gifford is a diamond in the rough, which he flashed during the 2019 preseason, the Cowboys will need a lot more insurance than that for next season. Whether it’s bringing back some of their veterans or drafting new depth in April, Dallas clearly has some work to do to restock the linebacker position this offseason.