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Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch Will Have Bounce Back Seasons in 2020

In 2018, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch both took the NFL by storm and quickly established themselves as the best linebacker duo in the league. The former racked up 121 tackles and four sacks, while the latter led the team with 140 tackles and garnered Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors as a rookie. The expectation was for that to continue last season, and it got off to a pretty good start, but it certainly wasn’t what we saw from the pair a season earlier. Even with that being said, this upcoming season should be a lot different.

Smith, if you just look purely at the numbers, had his best statistical season in 2019. However, the Cowboys had several games in which they fell behind by big margins due to the defense not being able to get off the field which allowed Smith to boost the stat sheet. Also, he didn’t look as explosive diagnosing plays and was a liability in coverage.

2020 could see the Cowboys shake some things up a bit defensively. Mike Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported last month that Smith could possibly switch spots and move to outside linebacker. If you want to get the best out of Smith you want him being able to attack the line of scrimmage vs the run and as a blitzer.

New Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan will use more of a hybrid scheme with multiple fronts. Also, he wants to use a designated pass rusher in the Cowboys 4-3 base defense.

Jane Slater on Twitter

Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy says they will have a 4-3 defense with some 3-4 principles like the designated pass rusher concept.

Nolan definitely has many ways he could use Jaylon in his scheme and take advantage of his skill set.

Vander Esch was on pace to have another very productive season in 2019 until he left a Week 7 matchup vs the Philadelphia Eagles with a neck injury. He would miss the team’s next game vs the New York Giants. Vander Esch would play in two more games vs the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions before his neck issues became too much and he was ruled out for the of the season.

He underwent surgery in January to fix the issue. Now, Vander Esch is expected to have no limitations and will be available for all of the Cowboys offseason plans. In this 4-3 scheme with 3-4 principles, Vander Esch will slide over to the middle linebacker.  According to Jane Slater of NFL Network, if you back and watch the film from the New Orleans Saints game a year ago it’ll give you a sense of how Vander Esch will be used. He’ll be attacking the gaps in the middle as opposed to running sideline to sideline.

One huge factor that will assist Smith and Vander Esch is the additions of defensive tackles Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Neville Gallimore to the roster. The more disruptive they can be on the interior the harder it is for an offensive lineman to reach the second level and put a hat on your linebackers. This will allow Smith and Vander Esch to roam like lions in the Serengeti and make plays.

Two years ago, Smith and Vander Esch led a defense that finished sixth overall. With Nolan now on the staff and implementing this new scheme, it’s setting up a return of the NFL’s best young linebacker combination.


What do you think?

Matthew Lenix

Written by Matthew Lenix

I write dope stuff about the Dallas Cowboys and what not.


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  1. Just the fact that they are eligible for a “bounce back” is a tad concerning … its an indication their play hasn’t been consistent … and for two young guys whom a lot of hopes are pinned on, that’s not optimal. Interested to see how they are used under Nolan’s guidance.

  2. Not real secure with the regression and health of these two, and Lee is no spring chicken. Our backups are decent+, I like Joe Thomas. While they had a great draft, was hoping for a promising LB in there somewhere. Even in seventh round instead of the QB flyer. We did get UDFA LB Francis Bernard, former RB, so good sense of play recognition and good motor. Also, ESPN’s Cowboy depth chart is listing UDFA Azur Kamara as LB?, just a one year starter at Kansas, very raw, great size.

  3. I saw the same things from Smith I did the previous years, regularly over running plays, taking bad angles, going for splashy hits but not wrapping up. I suspect he will be gone from the team as soon as the dead money goes away. Signing him two years early was a big mistake. Vander Esch though I think will do well. It was surprising seeing him miss tackles last year after how good he was as a rookie. I think he has a bright future, Smith not so much. Great story, not a great player.

    • I think Smith is fine. He may be trying too hard still and not allowing his natural ability to take over. To me, overrunning and not wrapping up in lieu of making the “big hit” are symptoms of over-trying and are both coachable and correctable. His skill set is unique and legit. Let’s see how Nolan uses him and reigns him in. He needs to quit “thinking” he’s a leader with too much responsibility and just start be a leader through his play (not words). As long as Lee shares that LB room with him, he needs to bow tro him and not try to be him.

  4. Coming to you from the bridge of the S.S.
    Next Year, Mediocre Jones is holding
    another press conference to explain why
    a new Head Excuse will make any
    difference in another year of futility for
    the Dallas AlSOS.

    I’ll be the first to admit that qb play is just
    one of many, many reasons why a football
    team fails its goals. A whole bunch of the
    people clamoring to pay Dak Prescott
    questioned Minnesota paying top of the
    mark money to journeyman qb Kirk
    Cousins. They really raised a ruckus over
    giving 28 mil a year to Garoppolo, when
    he had started a sum total of six NFL
    games. And, AND Garoppolo took his
    team to the very threshold of the promised
    land in only his third year with the 49ers.
    Would these mostly former players be
    screaming quite so loud for Prescott if
    Oprah. Obama or MJ owned the Dallas

    Dak Prescott is a lot of good things as
    a qb, but he ain’t no 40 mil a year qb.
    I ‘m thinkin’ writing Dak a blank check
    has a lot more to do with 40 acres and a
    mule, than it does football.

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