Dating all the way back to the 2005 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys have selected at least one linebacker every year. Many of them have not worked out, but the position still remains one that has a seemingly bright future with a solid amount of depth.
When both healthy and in sync, Sean Lee and Rolando McClain are as good of a tandem at this position than anyone in the league. Since Dallas’ defense often plays dominantly in nickel packages, Lee and McClain see plenty of snaps as the only 2 linebackers needed on the field.
However, the Cowboys current situation at LB may not be very sustainable in a long-term approach. We already know that Sean Lee is capable of being injured and sidelined for weeks at a time at any given moment, which brings down the entire presence that the Cowboys defense presents. Rolando McClain is on a new one year deal, and has a history of not giving his best effort at all times. While his 2016 deal could motivate him, the 26 year old linebacker – who apparently has some coaches concerned due to his current weight at workouts – likely doesn’t have a big future in store for him in the silver and blue.
In a perfect world, the Cowboys get one more consistent season out of McClain, playing next to a healthy Sean Lee. They then look to transition 34th overall pick Jaylon Smith into a starting role next to Lee, and watch as the two fly around the field making big plays for the defense.
For starters, there is Anthony Hitchens, who has proved to be a versatile player at the position. A fourth round draft pick in 2014, Hitchens mainly played the Cowboys strong side linebacker spot as a rookie, which is the lesser used third LB role on this defense. In 2015, Hitchens saw a slight increase in snaps, and remained a consistent force for Dallas.
As mentioned, the Cowboys have struggled for the most part in drafting linebackers that have turned into cornerstones at the position, so it is very promising to see the way Hitchens has developed over his first two seasons.
For the 2016 season, Anthony Hitchens could see competition at his SAM linebacker spot from the likes of Kyle Wilber and Andrew Gachkar.
As a core special teams player, Wilber was signed to a new two year deal this offseason, which warrants higher expectations for him to contribute to the defense.
Gachkar profiles somewhat similarly to Wilber, as he will be playing in the second year of a two year deal signed in March of 2015. Another player known for his special teams contributions, the University of Missouri product was drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 draft by the Chargers as a run-stopping LB.
Lastly, the Cowboys have Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha, who both had limited roles with the team as rookies in 2015. Wilson saw some snaps in the four game absence of McClain due to his suspension, primarily in the Cowboys week 4 loss in New Orleans. Here, Dallas suffered their second-straight painful loss, giving up an 80 yard TD reception on the second play of overtime to C.J. Spiller – in a play where Wilson was on the field.
Wrongly blamed solely for this miscue, Damien Wilson did not see a single snap on defense for the remainder of the season, ending his rookie campaign and opportunity for development. Meanwhile, Nzeocha spent 2015 recovering from a knee injury suffered in his final season at San Diego State, as he never saw the field defensively.
Both unproven players are going to be out to prove, among tough and deep competition, that they deserve a chance to be on the field when it matters the most for the Cowboys defense in 2016 and beyond.
If Jaylon Smith ever returns to full health, the Dallas Cowboys can expect him to sit at the top of the depth chart for years to come at one of the three linebacker positions. Starting later this summer, when the team hits training camp, we’ll get a sense of who can emerge to earn a prominent role alongside Smith in the future.
If the younger guys like Nzeocha can make big plays along with the developing Hitchens, the Cowboys could have a potentially scary lineup at the linebacker position as early as 2016 – without the benefit of Jaylon Smith.
Don’t sleep on the Dallas Cowboys’ front seven this season, particularly in the second level at linebacker.
So, I ask you now, who needs to step up for this Cowboys defense at LB? Comment below to start the conversation, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!