The Dallas Cowboys defense–as a unit–is easily the group that needs to play better for the team to win its first Super Bowl in 22 seasons. But on the defense there's a position of particular concern, which seems odd, considering that position has an All-Pro player on the depth chart; linebacker.
The Cowboys linebacker group looked pretty solid during the offseason. Sean Lee is one of the best linebackers in the league and arguably the best 4-3 outside linebacker.
Anthony Hitchens is a solid contributor who has now been starting for the Cowboys for a majority of his career. He still has a ways to go for the team to feel really confident about his ability to be a full-time player for Dallas.
Going into his third season, many saw Damien Wilson as a key factor for Dallas' defense in 2017. His recent arrest and possible suspension could derail potential progression for Wilson. Missing practice reps and not playing in games can only hurt your ability to improve. See DeMarcus Lawrence.
Let's also not forget maybe the most hyped player to never have played a snap: Jaylon Smith. He's all but been penciled in as a future Hall of Famer (somewhat kidding), yet we still don't know exactly what kind of contribution he will offer the team in 2017.
Kyle Wilber is a depth guy and special teams contributor. He may be able to play some snaps for you on defense, but the team has shown they'd prefer not to overexpose him.
Mark Nzeocha hasn't been healthy enough for the team to really see what they have in him.
The rest of the linebacker depth chart is made up of undrafted rookie free agents and camp bodies. As things stand now, it's pretty much Lee and a bunch of guys.
It's not completely dire though.
Since the base defense in the NFL has become the nickel defense, you really only need two linebackers for the majority of your defensive snaps. With the way that Dallas likes to use their safeties to cover tight ends or play down in the box, and sub-packages allow you to mask a weakness at linebacker even more so.
The concern for me is that the team has zero depth. We all hope Jaylon Smith is the stud linebacker that he was in college, but again, we have zero idea what he's going to look like.
If we see an injury to the linebacker group, there isn't much depth to feel really good about replacing the injured player.
That isn't to say that training camp can't answer these questions. What looks like a weakness now, could very well be a strength in week one if:
- Jaylon Smith is healthy and ready to go
- Damien Wilson gets a slap on the wrist instead of a suspension
- and Anthony Hitchens continues to improve.
We're still more than six weeks away from football games that count, and while the team has weaknesses, that's more than enough time for the Dallas Cowboys to shore them up.