Cowboys: Adding Vander Esch does NOT make Jaylon Smith a bust

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29: Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith
LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29: Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith /

After the Cowboys drafted Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th pick in the draft, many people assumed it signaled Jaylon Smith was a bust. Here’s why that would be an incorrect summation…

Cowboys Nation, as a whole, wasn’t overly fond of drafting Boise State linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch. Not only did fans question the linebacker’s talent, but they felt it meant former second round selection, Jaylon Smith, was a bust, destined for the bench.

Over the past few seasons, the NFL has seen less base 4-3 defensive packages and more nickel packages. This meant the third cornerback often played more often than the third linebacker. S with Sean Lee clearly entrenched as one starter, that means there was only room for one more starting linebacker, right?

Not so fast.


Times are changing in the NFL and with the growing use of the run-pass option (RPO) linebacker usage is on the rise. In college, where the RPO has been in use for some time now, defenses have found nickel packages like the 3-3-5 (3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB)have been most effective in stopping the attack.

It’s the versatility of the second layer that can adapt to the fluid nature of the RPO. As long as the linebackers are both effective against the pass and the run, they provide the best shot stopping the attack of an offense looking for weaknesses.

It’s unknown if the Cowboys will employ some defensive packages like the 3-3-5, but since playoff teams like the Eagles, Packers, and Panthers all regularly play RPO, using a proven solution seems like a safe bet.

Related Story: Understanding the RPO in the NFL

Snap Counts and Injuries

Even if the Cowboys stick to the same packages and same usage rates as last season, a case can be made there are still three starting linebackers on this defense.

A look at the snap counts from last season helps illustrate that:

The linebacker position is arguably the most violent position of an already violent sport. Injuries aren’t just a possibility – they are an inevitably.

One of the primary reasons the snap count was so similar between the top three linebackers is because all three spent time on the training table. To expect it to unfold otherwise is a bit naïve (although the optimism is commendable).

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Sean Lee is going to miss time next season. Jaylon Smith probably will too. And I’d expect the same from Leighton Vander Esch as well. It’s playing the percentages, really.

We saw what happened last year when Sean Lee left the lineup. The Cowboys cannot afford to have their defense implode every time a starter leaves in 2018. Having three capable linebackers rotating snaps helps prevent that.

When you factor in the possibility of playing three linebackers when facing RPO teams like the Packers, Eagles, and Panthers and you have even more added value to the linebacker position.

Next: Was Leighton Vander Esch drafted to stop the RPO?

The Dallas Cowboys are excited about Jaylon Smith and his progression as a pro. The decision to add Leighton Vander Esch had little to do with Smith and everything to do with how they intend to play the position in 2018.