Two seasons ago the Dallas Cowboys appeared to have the best young duo of linebackers in football. But Leighton Vander Esch's neck issues last year hurt that momentum, leaving he and Jaylon Smith looking to reestablish their partnership in 2020. They and the rest of the LB position are worth following as training camp is underway.
Vander Esch went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2018 and Jaylon finally got there himself last season. Now the Cowboys want to see both playing at their top level in the same season. With big changes happening on the defensive line and in the secondary, consistency and top-level play from the LB position will be crucial to success.
Sean Lee has put off retirement for at least one more season and returns as a semi-starter, valuable backup, leader, and mentor. The 34-year-old proved last year he could still make an impact on the field and hopefully can continue to do so now.
The Cowboys also re-signed Joe Thomas as another key reserve and potential insurance policy against Lee's age and health. He started in the NFL with Mike McCarthy's Packers and will be a useful presence as the team adapts to its new head coach.
The battle at the bottom of the depth chart will be fun to watch. Despite going down during the first preseason game, Luke Gifford was generating a lot of buzz and still did enough to earn a roster spot. Justin March was also re-signed for his special teams work and as a solid depth option.
One of the stars so far in 2020 training camp is undrafted rookie Francis Bernard. At his current pace, Bernard will make things interesting at final cuts.
We'll go deeper on the roster battles and possible scenarios in our next section.
LB Pre-Camp Rankings
- Jaylon Smith
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Sean Lee vs Joe Thomas
- Francis Bernard vs Luke Gifford vs Justin March
Thanks to Sean Lee, the phrase “if healthy” has been a big part of linebacker discussions in Dallas for some time. We can only hope that the tradition eventually leaves with him, but unfortunately both Leighton and Jaylon have their own histories now and concerns for the future.
Nevertheless, Vander Esch and Smith are where we rest our hope today. If they can live up to their potential, they could easily be the two best defenders on the entire roster and among the elite linebackers in the NFL.
Dallas will continue to use Lee as much as his body and performance allows. His versatile skills allow for Sean to be deployed in a variety of ways. But same can be said for Joe Thomas, who is considerably younger, and we could quickly see Thomas taking on more of Lee's duties if The General continues slowing down.
I'm really excited to what happens between Bernard, Gifford, and March. I could see any pairing out of those three make the roster, and I could even see Dallas finding a way to keep all three.
Right now I'm fairly confident in Gifford. The Cowboys were high enough on him to excuse the early preseason injury and carry him injured on the 53-man roster for much of 2019. He's a natural fit for the SAM role and a potential future starter to compliment Leighton and Jaylon.
If Dallas only keeps six linebackers then that battle probably comes down to Bernard and March. If Francis keeps making plays on defense and can contribute in special teams, the Cowboys will likely keep him over March for the upside.
That said, with both Bernard and March perhaps being top special teamers, Dallas could opt to keep a seventh linebacker over a fullback, third QB, or some other roster spot that doesn't offer the same value.