To say things didn’t go as planned for the Cowboys linebackers last season would be a massive understatement.
Thought of as the team’s strongest unit heading into 2019, Dallas’ linebacker group quickly hit a reality check early in the season. One they never seemed to recover from as a whole.
Former rookie sensation Leighton Vander Esch was forced to miss much of the season with a serious neck injury, muddying his future in football overall. Jaylon Smith could not follow up his excellent 2018 season, struggling as a tackler and leading fans to call him out after signing his lucrative extension. Sean Lee has clearly lost a step, and though he had his moments (particularly against the Rams) his decline is real.
Struggling with injuries and underperformance, Dallas turned to free agent Malcolm Smith late last season. Smith, a former Super Bowl MVP, was brought in in large part due to his connection to then passing game coordinator Kris Richard. Both Smith and Richard came from Seattle’s glory days defensively, and were looking to rekindle their spark in Dallas.
While the team didn’t find much success in the win column late in the year, Malcolm Smith himself was rather impressive. Smith played over half of the team’s defensive snaps in their final two games, and even forced a fumble during the season finale against Washington.
Smith will be 31 years old when the 2020 season kicks off, and while he likely wouldn’t be in the run for a starting job, he could provide some strong veteran depth behind these young starters. But, considering he is an unrestricted free agent in one of the more stacked team-free agent classes in Cowboys history, he may get lost in the shuffle.
Plus, with Mike McCarthy taking over and replacing the defensive staff, Malcolm Smith has lost his connection points to the former coaches and scheme. No longer will Dallas’s defense be under Kris Richard’s play calling, and with new coaches often comes new personnel.
Fellow linebackers Sean Lee, Justin March, and Joe Thomas will also be entering free agency this Spring. Dallas is going to have a lot of decisions to make come March, and who will be filling out their linebacker depth is certainly on the to-do list.