Dallas Cowboys Draft: To Linebacker or Not to Linebacker?

Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

A lot of Dallas Cowboys’ fans are already looking toward the draft, and the topic of Micah Parsons is one there is no consensus on.

The Dallas Cowboys currently hold the fourth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and with Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Penei Sewell all predicted to go in the top three the topic of trading back or picking is a hot topic. For those looking to make a pick, one of the top names for many is Micah Parsons. Parsons, the linebacker out of Penn State, is a good football player, the issue is he plays linebacker.

The argument isn’t about if Parsons is a top-five player or not, it is about the value of linebacker and whether the player would move the needle the same as a different position. Doing a little digging I came across this little gem where the author took PFF values and figured out positional WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and variation. Essentially the takeaway is that on defense corner and safety have the highest value, with adjusting for variation, defensive line, then linebacker. While linebacker has a higher base WAR, the variation is low.

But enough of the nerdy talk, the conclusion is that linebacker is not a position, in terms of value studied, that should be a first-round investment. Of course, the first thing people will say is what about Luke Kuechly, Navorro Bowman, Patrick Queen, and so on. Well, while those have been really good linebackers, their impact is not as great as people think on the team.

Let’s use Navorro Bowman as an example. In 2013, the 49ers had one of the best defenses in the league, this is a truth. Upon looking at the roster and scheme, we see the 49ers ran a 3-4 scheme when their linebackers were used to pass rush more than they were in coverage, at least on the edges. The 49ers had Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker (in a 3-4 really more defensive end), Justin Smith and Ray McDonald at defensive end, and Glenn Dorsey at nose tackle, a really good defensive line. On the back end, the 49ers had Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown at corners, and Eric Reid alongside Donte Whitner at safety. Seven first-round picks starting on defense.

the next year Bowman was an All-Pro was 2015, and that defense was ranked bottom of the league. Gone were many of the players listed above and Bowman was the center point of the defense. This is all before we mention that Bowman was a third-round pick. So perhaps, we should look at a first-round pick instead, on to Luke Kuechly.

In 2013, when Kuechly was the defensive player of the year, the Panthers had arguably one of the best pass rushes in the league. They were rolling Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson at defensive end, with Star Lotulelei at one of the defensive tackle spots, that is a scary front. As the Panthers’ defensive line and coverage got thin, Keuchly was not enough for the team to keep above league average on defense.

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This brings us back to the topic of drafting Micah Parsons. If Parsons was a pass rush specialist or had more versatility to also play safety his value rises exponentially. Pass rush and coverage just hold more value over time than an off-ball linebacker. If you don’t have that top tier defensive line in front of the linebacker, their value drops.

Before I get all the hate about this, I am not saying Parsons isn’t a good football player or not a superb athlete, I like Parsons. My point is that if the Dallas Cowboys do not improve their defensive line play, grabbing Parsons won’t give be the defensive boon people will want from him. Linebacker is a position the Cowboys will want to address, and whether it is Parsons or someone else, the defensive line has to get better to make the linebacker play better.

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The debate will rage on all the way to the draft. Off-ball linebacker is no longer the lynchpin of a defense as they used to be when the running games ruled the NFL. You certainly need one who can tackle and cover over the middle, however, those types of linebackers seem to be found beyond the first round more than other positions in terms of impact. To draft a linebacker or not, that is the question.

  • Published on 12/01/2020 at 13:01 PM
  • Last updated at 12/01/2020 at 09:42 AM