Part four of the way-too-early Cowboys' 53-man roster projection series discusses two positions tied closely together in Dan Quinn's defense.
If you missed the first three parts of this series, the links can be found below.
For quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers click here. For tight ends and offensive line click here. For defensive line click here.
Like we discussed in the previous article analyzing the defensive line, Dan Quinn's defense is largely based on versatility.
In today's dive into projecting the 53-man roster, we will discuss two very interchangeable positions on the Cowboys' defense: Linebackers and safeties.
Cowboys' LB Leighton Vander Esch
Leighton Vander Esch
Coming off of a year with his most production since his rookie season in 2017, Leighton Vander Esch earned himself a new 2 year, $8.0 million deal to stay in Dallas.
After bursting onto the NFL scene as a rookie, and earning 2nd team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors, LVE's numbers declined significantly in the following three seasons.
This decline can be attributed to a neck injury that required offseason surgery.
Post-surgery, the Wolf Hunter appeared to be hesitant to make tackles. Far from the aggressive player we saw record 140 total tackles as a rookie.
The 2022 season, however, showed a player who seemed to regain confidence.
It also helped to have a 320 pound nose tackle filling gaps, and keeping LVE free to make open field tackles.
Vander Esch will start the season as the top linebacker on the Cowboys' depth chart.
Much to the surprise of the fan base, rookie Linebacker Damone Clark made his debut midway through the season.
The Dallas Cowboys got an absolute steal in the 2022 NFL Draft after his stock fell due to a spinal issue discovered during the NFL Combine.
Once graded as a 1st-2nd round player, teams were wary of the back issue, and he fell all the way to pick 176 for Dallas in the fifth round.
The original diagnosis gave the impression that he wouldn't be available until the 2023 season, but Clark made enough progress to suit up for Week 8.
He immediately made an impact, playing 51% of the defensive snaps vs the Chicago Bears, and recording 5.0 tackles.
Clark will likely start alongside LVE in the Cowboys' base nickel package.
DeMarvion Overshown is one of two rookies expected to make an immediate impact for the Cowboys defense.
Prior to the draft, linebacker depth was widely regarded as a need for the Cowboys. No one outside of the Cowboys' front office knew just how much of a need it would be.
With Micah Parsons declaring a full-time move to defensive end in 2023, the linebacker room became even thinner than anticipated.
A converted safety, Agent Zero brings that oh-so-important trait to Dan Quinn's unit: Versatility.
Expect Overshown to play primarily special teams, but slowly work his way into the defensive rotation at linebacker, pass rusher, and even at safety.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, Jabril Cox has disappointed based on the original expectations.
Much like Damone Clark, Cox was considered a steal in the fourth round for the Cowboys.
An ACL injury sidelined him halfway through his rookie season after only appearing in two regular season games.
Expected to step up and take a major role in the defense for his sophomore campaign, Cox instead only played 35 total defensive snaps, and was a healthy scratch for 10 games.
Unless Cox makes strides this offseason, he will return to only contributing on special teams when active.
The Cowboys selected Devin Harper in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
He was active for only three games before becoming a healthy scratch, and eventually being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Harper adds depth for the linebacker position, but likely will be mainly a special teams contributor for 2023.
Just outside of the bubble: Malik Jefferson
Cowboys' S Jayron Kearse
Jayron Kearse has revitalized his career since joining the Dallas defense under Dan Quinn.
In Quinn's scheme, the “Pterrordactyl” doubled all of his stats from his four years in Minnesota in only two years with the Cowboys.
Kearse plays a hybrid role, spending part of his snaps as a safety, and the other part of his snaps at linebacker.
He specializes in coverage of opposing teams' athletic tight ends, while also being a missile in run support close to the line of scrimmage.
With another year as a starter in Quinn's three safety look, Jayron looks to continue his stellar play.
Another member of the Cowboys' three-headed monster at safety, Donovan Wilson signed a new contract worth $21 million over three years to remain in Dallas.
Much like Kearse, Dono plays a hybrid role between safety and linebacker, but he is much better at tackling than what he is in coverage.
Wilson led the Cowboys defense in tackles in 2022, starting all 17 games and recording 101 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 9 QB hits, 5.0 sacks, and 1 interception.
With a new contract, Wilson looks to continue his dominance in 2023.
The tertiary complement to Dan Quinn's three-headed monster at safety, Malik Hooker brings much more in pass coverage than Kearse and Wilson.
Hooker often finds himself as the single high safety, preventing anything deep down the field while the other two safeties wreak havoc down low.
Although only credited with six starts in 2022, Hooker played 81% of the defensive snaps for the season, and tied a career-high with three interceptions.
His role for 2023 looks like a repeat of 2022.
Israel Mukuamu emerged in 2022 as more than just a safety.
Mukuamu's length inspired Dan Quinn to use him in a safety/cornerback role, and it paid dividends.
Izzy may be listed as a safety on the depth chart, but expect him to also bump down closer to the line of scrimmage to cover wide receivers out of the slot.
He will also still play a major role on special teams. A unit in which he played 67% of the snaps.
The final safety spot on the roster goes to second-year undrafted free agent Markquese Bell.
Bell only played 22 total defensive snaps in 2022, making most of his impact playing 54% of the special teams snaps.
It's difficult for him to crack into the defensive rotation behind the four safeties mentioned above, but the Cowboys like his traits.
He could possibly get more opportunity with a strong training camp.
Just outside of the bubble: Tyler Coyle