For what seems like forever, the Cowboys have had a linebacker problem across their defense. And for that same amount of time the success of their entire defense has largely relied on the health of one man: linebacker Sean Lee.
Of course it hasn’t actually been forever. Just a few seasons ago Rolando McClain had arguably the best season of his career for the Cowboys, keeping the unit afloat even with Sean Lee out with an injury.
But that 2014 team and season feels like ages ago, as the Cowboys enter this season with basically a totally different group.
Even just one year ago, however, we saw the Cowboys defense, specifically their linebackers, fall apart during Lee’s absence. When Lee returned against the New York Giants, the Cowboys rattled off two straight victories and played stellar defense over the final four games of the season.
Simply put, when Sean Lee isn’t around the Cowboys defense has significant problems stopping anyone.
Realizing this the Cowboys made it a point to address their linebacker corps through the 2018 NFL Draft, selecting Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall. Vander Esch certainly was not my first choice in round one, especially given some of the other players available, but he clearly fills a need on this team.
Vander Esch is an athletic freak, an immediate starting linebacker in this league, and just what the doctor ordered for this Cowboys defense. Together, Lee and Vander Esch have a chance to be the dynamic linebacker duo we all hoped Lee and McClain would be.
But the title of this post is, “how close is the Cowboys’ linebacker group to being great?” And in order for this group to be considered great, former second round pick Jaylon Smith must be as well.
Overall, 2017 was a promising season of first action for Jaylon Smith. Sure, he struggled early on taking on blocks and playing sideline to sideline, but as the season progressed so did his play. Once getting comfortable within the defense, and clearly getting healthier, Smith saw his play improve down the stretch.
Playing in more of a rotational role beside Sean Lee, rather than a starting MIKE role, also improved Smith’s play. This not only alleviated some of the pressure, but also kept him fresh throughout the game. And, at least in 2017, less was more for Jaylon Smith.
If all three of Smith, Lee, and Vander Esch are healthy, this has the chance to be one of the top linebacker groups in all of football.
A nickel set with Lee/Vander Esch and Smith as a special pass rusher can be a dangerous unit, and one Cowboys fans should be excited about for years to come.