Dallas Cowboys Draft: LBs aren’t special or irreplaceable, act accordingly

(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

It’s an argument we’ve been having all offseason – Should the Dallas Cowboys target the linebacker position early in the 2021 NFL Draft. With Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch potentially playing their last season with the silver and blue, the positional need is somewhat there.

But just because there’s an upcoming hole in the roster, doesn’t mean the position is worth a premium investment. And just because the Dallas Cowboys need defense, doesn’t mean all the defensive positions should be in play early in the draft.

That’s where positional value comes into play. But how do we know what positions are worth a first round pick and why is linebacker not one of them? We will attempt to answer that for you today.

The Dallas Cowboys would be foolish to use a first round pick to address the linebacker position

Something we addressed early in the offseason was positional value. To define positional value we looked at a few main factors: Impact on the game, replaceabilty, and average annual pay.

Impact and replaceability can be measured primarily by wins above replacement (WAR). By looking at the WAR of the top-10 players of a position group, we can see how much they offer a team over an average replacement level player. The greater the number, the more value and the less replaceable.

It shouldn’t be of any surprise that quarterback is far and away the most impactful and the most irreplaceable player in the NFL. It’s also worth pointing out, Dak Prescott finished third among NFL QBs in his last full season played. A far cry from Andy Dalton (a replacement level player) who was so bad last year he finished with a negative EPA (expected points added).

Linebacker operates at the other end of the spectrum – third from last to be specific. Compared to other positions of need for the Dallas Cowboys, it’s considerably down the list. A top-10 safety offers over 2x the WAR than that of LB and CB isn’t far behind safety. Both are considerably more impactful than LB and far less replaceable.

The other item to consider is pay. Teams can say they value certain positions certain amounts but money is what does the loudest talking. When assessing the top-10 LBs in the NFL, they are fifth lowest paid position.

Since rookies have slotted salaries based on their draft position, we can estimate the Dallas Cowboys will be paying Pick 10 about $5 million annually. At an annual average salary near $14M, a rookie linebacker offers a savings of roughly $9 million annually. Not terrible.

If you don’t think your top-10 draft selection is going to be a Pro Bowler, you’re doing it wrong.

But like WAR, cornerback is more valuable since the top-10 players at that position are paid over a million more. Having high value positions filled by players on rookie deals is a great way to maximize salary cap space. Obviously you need them to perform up to top-10 (Pro Bowl) status, but that’s what you expect from a top-10 pick.

What about exceptions to the rule? Every year someone says Prospect A may be the next Luke Kuechly.  And every year the prospects fall short. At the end of the day, exceptions to rules are dangerous things and should be avoided at all costs.

Frankly, an argument could be made Kuechly himself, the quintessential exception to the rule, wasn’t worth the ninth overall pick given the replaceablity of his position and that CB Stephon Gilmore and DT Fletcher Cox were picked just after him.

Looking at Pro Football Focus’ top-16 graded linebackers, we can see where real value is found. We’ve done this in the past with the CB and OT positions and found the vast majority of them are first round picks. Is the same true with the LB position?


As the tweet says above, none of the top-graded linebackers from 2020 were drafted in the first round. And the majority of them were found in the third round or after. So those “exceptions” didn’t exactly pay off, did they?

At the end of the day, linebackers haven’t been worthy of a first round pick and a solid case can be made they aren’t worth a Day 2 pick either.

Lesson for the Dallas Cowboys: Linebackers just aren’t worth it

Linebackers aren’t special in what they offer in overall value and they aren’t special in regards to replaceability. They aren’t paid exceptionally high, meaning the rookie contract doesn’t offer as much savings as it does for other positions.

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Finally, first round picks rarely live up to their billing and all of the top linebackers from 2020 were found outside of the first round. In fact, majority of them were picked in the third round or after.

Linebackers in college shine. They’re often the best mix of size, speed, and athleticism on the field and usually lean on their dominant abilities rather than hone their craft. They intoxicate us with their highlight reels and set unrealistic expectations at the next level.

In the NFL, everyone is big and strong and fast and that’s why the position can be a sort of “crap-shoot” when projecting to the next level.

Off-ball linebackers aren’t valuable. They aren’t special or irreplaceable. There’s no need to use an early pick, let alone a first round pick, on the position.

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Given the needs at other high value positions, the Dallas Cowboys would be crazy to pick a linebacker with Pick 10.

  • Published on 04/07/2021 at 11:26 AM
  • Last updated at 04/11/2021 at 12:33 PM