The Dallas Cowboys had what many felt was the best linebacker duo in the NFL back in 2018 with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. The two seasons that followed would be rough for both as Smith saw a regression in his play and Vander Esch dealt with several injuries.
When the 2021 NFL Draft came around the Cowboys were expected to go heavy on the defensive side of the ball, and they did with eight selections out of their 11 picks. They would double down on the linebacker position by taking Micah Parsons in the first round and Jabril Cox in the fourth round.
In the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Smith only logged 16 snaps and Vander only had 14. However, with Parsons getting more snaps at defensive end, they each saw a lot more playing time against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2, and they didn't disappoint.
Smith registered 54 snaps last week. He finished a team-high nine tackles (six solo tackles). According to Pro Football Focus, Smith had an 80.5 coverage grade and a 78.5 tackle grade. What is encouraging about his performance is he looked to play with the speed and violence bringing down ball carriers as he did in years past. Also, played well in space by making a couple of key stops on third down.
Vander Esch saw his snaps jump up to 37 against the Chargers. He amassed seven tackles (second on the team) a sack, and an 83.1 pas rush grade per PFF. “The Wolf Hunter” as he's known has never lacked talent just the ability to stay on the field as he missed 13 games over the previous two seasons.
I really think Osa had a strong day in Week 2.
Forces Justin Herbert up into the pocket and into Leighton Vander Esch's arms. pic.twitter.com/8lku4p1xoo
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 21, 2021
The Cowboys have been hit with a few injuries on the defensive side of the ball. DeMarcus Lawrence is currently out for 6-8 with a broken bone in his foot. Starting Strong Safety Donovan Wilson missed the game against the Chargers with a nagging groin injury and Damontae Kazee dealt with a thigh issue although he hasn't missed any games. Despite this, the Cowboys held the Chargers to just 17 points and Vander Esch applauded the effort of players stepping up on the road in a crucial win.
“It just shows the versatility of this defense and how athletic and how much potential we have,” Vander Esch said. “We have to stick together. We still have a lot to clean up, but it's very promising. We have to keep grinding, and we have to keep up the intensity and focus week in and week out. Enjoy this win for a few hours, then get ready to go get it next week.”
The Cowboys can escape the contract of Smith in 2022 and they declined the $9.145 million fifth-year option of Vander Esch back in May, meaning this season could be his last in Dallas as well. However, the best-case scenario for the Cowboys is that both continue to play well and keep the team with a loaded linebacker room.