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Re-Signing LB Joe Thomas an Underrated Move in Cowboys 2020 Offseason

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?

How Does LB Joe Thomas Fit Into Cowboys' 2019 Plans?
Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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.

What do you think?

Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. I believe it is an excellent observation. He played very solidly for us and is quality depth.

    I certainly applauded the move, especially since I think LVE is one hit from calling it a career. His infirmary is very serious.

    Dallas/Will McClay has done an excellent job evaluating LBs. Also, I suspect we see 4-2-5 as our most used D in 2020 and beyond.

    • Dick Nolan has traditionally run a 3-4. Based upon the current roster the base D might be a 4-2-5 but this is not going to be a Marinelli vanilla one look defense. First of all they have a true NT for the first time in years, Lawrence, Aldon, Jaylon, even Lee have shown ability as EDGE guys or SPRs all of which would lead one to believe more of a 3-4 look will be used at least as a change of pace

  2. Very underrated. He’s prob the most overlooked but very valuable player. He will step in and give you about 90% of what you would get from a healthy jaylon or LVE. He’s one of those players that are so close to a starter but just shy and very valuable depth. That you wouldn’t skip a breath to throw him in there in any situation.
    Him a looney are a couple of the best off season signings.

  3. For some time Dallas has been enamored with their own FAs. This year seemed different. With 24 unsigned players heading into the off-season the task to fill out the roster seemed daunting. They have done a fantastic job. Without history/loyalty playing a role given the new staff McCarthy was free to evaluate talent without bias. He wisely let Byron sign elsewhere and let a bunch of bottom of the roster guys walk. 3 signings were great. Thomas, as detailed here, March, and MOST of all Looney. Could you imagine where the team would be, given Frederick s retirement, without this signing? Kudos to McCarthy and McClay for identifying key role players and getting them signed.

    • Looney was signed before Fredrick retired…. He was signed to be a backup from the beginning, I’ll be the first to admit that Looney is a good player, but he wasn’t signed to take over for Fredrick!! I think he’s just an insurance policy in case something happens, and that obviously did when Fredrick retired…. But now they drafted Tyler biadasz and I think they’re gonna try to get him to take over the center position!! And it was Mccarthy that had high praises for Tyler too, so it’s not looking good for Looney!! But like I said, he was signed before Fredrick retired, so he was expecting to be a backup anyways!!

  4. J Thomas is still young and I kept seeing his # show up making plays so maybe should’ve signed him to longer contract. As for Lee I always thought we play better with him on the field his awareness and smarts always did set him apart and he’s like having extra coach on field but Maybe spell Lee with Thomas more to minimize chance for injury and keep him fresh so he has some gas down the stretch. Poe/McCoy tandem ability to clog middle should also help keep linebackers clean to make more plays

  5. Downside to new players is unfamiliarity with system and new coaches which is more glaring with shorter training camp this yr less opportunities to Jell. For sure teams with continuity will have advantage. Agree Ben the Looney signing was clutch bit isn’t it just 1Yr.contract, think team is hoping one of the young guys Blasdiez (not sure spelling) or McGovern grows into that job as the center position is key and usually makes the calls on the the oline.

  6. I like the Joe Thomas signing, he’s probably one of the best backup LBs in the league!! But I can see why some people wouldn’t see it as one of the biggest moves for us cause we’ve had him on the team for a few years now, that’s not really anything much different!! But when we bring people in like Dontari Poe, Gerald Mccoy and Ha Ha Clinton Dix….. Moves we’re not used to seeing our cowboys make, that’s why they’re at the top of the list of top free agent moves for us in 2020!!

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