It's been a while since we last visited the NFC East battle for supremacy. With only a few groups remaining, let's finally return to this journey to explore the linebackers of this division.
For my money, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker corp is the most interesting position group in the entire division.
Purely "on paper" talent-wise, the Cowboys have the best linebackers. Between Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, and newly drafted Jaylon Smith, there is a ton of talent in this group. The problem is getting all three of these guys on the field at the same time.
But in fact, this will never happen.
Jaylon Smith is expected to miss the entire 2016 season and when he does return, McClain will most likely be out the door. Getting McClain to show up to work everyday has been a problem, and when he does show up physically, you don't know if he is totally there mentally.
Sean Lee is a top-five inside backer in the NFL when healthy. That "when healthy" stipulation has been tough to overcome throughout his career, however.
Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, and Andrew Gachkar will each have opportunities to earn playing time, and even a starting position. My eyes are on Gachkar as I expect him to get chances as the SAM linebacker, and hopefully be productive while doing so.
The Eagles have three of my favorite linebackers in the entire division. Former Texas Longhorn Jordan Hicks had a phenomenal rookie season during the eight games he was able to play. The problem with Hicks is that he only played in eight games. Hicks struggled with injury problems at Texas, and if this continues his immense talent may be rendered useless.
Mychal Kendricks has had similar issues with injuries, but to a lesser extent.
The Eagles did decide to add former Buffalo Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham this offseason. Bradham finished his 2015 campaign with a career high 104 tackles in 14 games.
I like all three of these starters, but not a single one of them has completed an entire NFL season. The injury bug tends to bite these Eagles' linebackers hard, and the lack of depth at the position will pose problems for the team this season.
The Giants linebackers have been bad. Really bad.
I am from the Northeast and must listen to a lot of Giants talk throughout my day, and if there is one group that gets killed consistently by fans, it is this one.
With that being said, the Giants did a ton of work to improve this group during the offseason. Adding Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard should help to solidify the position and make up for Jon Beason's departure.
Jasper Brinkley, Jonathon Casillas, Mark Herzlich, Uani Unga, J.T. Thomas, and Devon Kennard played a game of musical chairs each week when deciding who would get to start, so the Giants will certainly look to have more stability in 2016.
Washington will be the only team in the NFC East to run a traditional 3-4 base defense, meaning that their outside linebackers will serve a much different role than the other team's linebackers.
Those outside linebackers could be dangerous. Ryan Kerrigan is the clear leader of the Redskins defense, and returns in 2016. The other side will be competed for by Junior Galette and Preston Smith.
Preston Smith is a second year player out of Mississippi State who recorded 8 sacks and 4 forced fumbles during his rookie season.
Galette was a beast in New Orleans prior to his off-the-field issues and ACL tear. If he is healthy, he could be a nice compliment to Kerrigan.
Either way, the Redskins seem set at outside linebacker.
On the inside, Will Compton, Mason Foster, and Perry Riley Jr. will all see time. Compton recorded 96 combined tackles in 2015, and Mason Foster filled in due to injury and started the rest of the season. Rookie Su'a Cravens is also being worked out as an inside linebacker.
Which team has the best linebackers?
This one is tough, probably the toughest decision yet.
I love what the Cowboys have in Lee and McClain. The problem with crowning them the best is, how long will they have both Lee and McClain on the field?
I like what the Eagles have to offer with Bradham, Kendricks, and Hicks. But similarly to the Cowboys, injuries might be a problem. To me, the Giants aren't in this conversation yet, as I am in more of a "wait and see" mode with them. So that leaves the Washington Redskins.
I love what the Redskins' outside linebackers have to offer; Kerrigan, Smith, and Galette are all pass rush forces and will create problems for most offenses.
Their inside linebackers are no slouches, either, and I am looking at Su'a Cravens as a potential breakout player this season.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.
But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.
Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.
The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.
Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.
We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.
In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.
Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.
With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.
But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.
The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
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