Heading into in the 2019 season, the Dallas Cowboys were in a great position at the linebacker position. After Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch broke out in the 2018 season confidence at the linebacker position was sky-high. With Sean Lee and Joe Thomas providing depth, there was very little concern for the level of play the Cowboys would get from the second level of their defense.
Just seven months later, the Cowboys may have a very significant need at linebacker as they prepare to retool their roster for the 2020 season. Interestingly, visiting the University of Oklahoma for the Sooners’ Pro Day, members of the Cowboys front office met with All-American Linebacker Kenneth Murray.
First round pick Kennith Murray will meet with the #texans on the 18th. After that he has roughly 15 visits planned. I do know a few of those teams in the 15 are the Ravens, Raiders, Cowboys, Cardinals. https://t.co/kpRAJOoJrp
Meeting with Murray may just be the Dallas Cowboys doing their due diligence, however, it may mean they aren’t as confident in the future of the linebacker corp as they were last Summer.
Jaylon Smith made through the season healthy and though he had a solid year, it was a bit disappointing based on expectations. Leighton Vander Esch was off to a good start, but a neck injury that was rumored to be an issue at Boise State seemed to flare up in 2019. While there’s optimism that he’ll be ready to go, there is certainly some concern about Vander Esch’s longevity.
Joe Thomas, Malcolm Smith, and Sean Lee are set to be free agents. The Cowboys have expressed interest in bringing back Lee, but it seems like Thomas has an opportunity to find a significant role with another team in free agency. Malcolm Smith was likely brought in by former Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard who was Smith’s defensive coordinator during their time in Seattle. The Cowboys would be wise to try and retain at least two of these three players to backup Smith and Vander Esch.
Given the issues that Vander Esch has had with his neck, it would make sense for the Cowboys to have a plan in place in the event this becomes a lingering issue into the 2020 season and beyond.
The other way it could make sense for the Cowboys to have serious interest in Murray is new Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan’s interest in playing multiple defensive fronts. Both Jaylon Smith and Kenneth Murray are really good pass rushers from the linebacker position. Nolan could have ideas for how to get them both involved and on the field in three linebacker sets, even in nickel.
Theoretically, the Cowboys could play their nickel defense with three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs and keep offenses off guard with how they deploy their linebackers. They could send any combination of their linebackers on the rush or not at all.
Kenneth Murray is arguably the best linebacker in this draft class along with LSU Linebacker Patrick Queen. Either one would be a tremendous asset, but given the Cowboys’ needs across the defense, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys using a premium pick at linebacker.
While it’s unlikely that the Cowboys would draft a linebacker in the first round, they definitely need to figure out what they’re going to do with the linebacker depth chart. After 2019, confidence is lower in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to lead the way at the linebacker position. The Cowboys may not need to find a starter in the draft, but they need really good depth to ensure they don’t miss a beat if Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch are forced to miss time.