What have been the Dallas Cowboys’ 10 biggest moves so far in 2020? While a survey would bring back many answers, I bet you that few lists would include the re-signing of backup Linebacker Joe Thomas. Despite being an offseason afterthought, Thomas brings considerable value and his return is one of Dallas’ more underrated roster decisions this year.
Thomas signed with the Cowboys in 2018 to provide depth at linebacker. The former undrafted free agent had spent the last four seasons in the same role for the Green Bay Packers, playing under new Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.
Joe proved to be a solid reserve and special teamer these last two years. While his opportunities were limited with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch in the mix, Thomas held his own when put into the game and at times flashed play-making potential.
Unlike many other positions on the Cowboys’ 2020 roster, linebacker may not have any turnover from the previous season. We could easily see the exact same cast with Luke Gifford and Justin March filling out the rest of the depth chart.
That means Thomas will again be just one big injury away from perhaps taking on a major defensive role. And between Lee and Vander Esch’s histories, the odds on that are pretty high.
We all know how it goes with Sean Lee and the occasional absence. He appeared in all 16 games last season, likely thanks to having a reduced role, but I imagine everyone is like me in waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s due to miss some games in 2020.
Vander Esch is coming off a sophomore season where a chronic neck issue cost him seven games. All reports right now are positive, but it’s late May and these players haven’t even been able to start mini camps or OTAs. Who really knows how he’ll do in 2020?
And frankly, who knows if Jaylon Smith’s major 2016 injury will ever resurface?
All of these red flags point to the need for added insurance at linebacker. Some thought Dallas might bring in some more talent through the 2020 Draft, but instead it appears they’ll rely on a familiar veteran in Joe Thomas.
One of his best attributes is versatility. Thomas has the athleticism and size to handle any role he’s asked to do, though ideally he’d play in the middle or on the weak side.
Especially critical is the ability to play in coverage if asked to step in on the nickel defense. The Cowboys have an intriguing prospect in Luke Gifford for the strong side position, but he may not be rangy or experienced enough at this point to get extensive time defending the pass.
Joe Thomas has shown that range and coverage ability. He’s not a star but he can keep things solvent if something bad happens in the starting lineup.
In some ways, Thomas is reminiscent of former Cowboys’ linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
Despite being just a 4th-Round pick, Hitchens got to prove himself right way thanks to issues with Sean Lee and Rolando McClain in 2014. That reliability led to a starting role, and eventually a lucrative contract and Super Bowl ring with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Nobody would claim that Hitchens is an elite NFL linebacker or much of an impact player. He’s just a guy who can play different spots and do them all solidly.
Perhaps the only difference between him and a guy like Joe Thomas is getting that early opportunity to play and establish himself.
This isn’t to say that Thomas deserves to start over Jaylon, Leighton, or Sean in Dallas. But the day could easily come this season when he has to play significant reps, or even multiple games, because of injuries among the top three.
If that happens, the Cowboys will be very glad that they kept Joe Thomas around in 2020.