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.
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.