The Dallas Cowboys have needs at linebacker. It may not look like it on paper, but paper isn’t reality and the reality is the Cowboys are unsettled at linebacker. Whether the mix-up happens this year or next, it’s an issue Dallas needs to get ahead of and address sooner rather than later.
That’s why drafting a linebacker or two this year is advisable. It eases them into the system and prevents the Dallas Cowboys from reaching next year when the need is more apparent and the repercussions are direr.
We already know we don’t want to draft an off-ball linebacker early if we can help it. Linebackers have terrible positional value and most of their production can be replaced by JAGs (just a guy) found in latter rounds. And the Dallas Cowboys themselves have proven they aren’t particularly good at picking them since their past two selections have flamed out pretty spectacularly.
The Dallas Cowboys need to draft a linebacker but they need a very specific kind.
Once upon a time, Jaylon Smith was our favorite redemption story, but now, coming off two consecutive poor seasons, he’s a cautionary tale. As a rookie, Leighton Vander Esch looked like the second coming of Brian Urlacher. But now, coming off two consecutive poor seasons, he looks more like Brian Bosworth (and that’s probably being disrespectful to “the Boz”).
Both players could be gone in 2022, and given their recent poor level of play, both could see their snaps reduced this season. And it’s their deficiencies that must be recognized and addressed by the Dallas Cowboys.
The single biggest issue with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith is their problems in coverage. Some fans will point to their missed tackles, terrible block shedding, and their ability to execute their run fits, but that pales in comparison to their pass defense.
Did the two ‘backers struggle with the run last year? Sure. But given the atrocious D-line play in front of them, any linebacker would have. We don’t have to give them a pass for their poor run play, but we do need to accept the explanation.
Pro Football Focus agrees, rating both players much higher against the run last season than they were in coverage. PFF rated LVE with a 42.2 coverage grade and Jaylon with a 64.4 coverage grade last year. That’s at the bottom of the league.
While the scheme change will help dramatically against the run, it isn’t going to make coverage much easier for them. Quinn’s base Cover-3 will have both players in a lot of zone coverage. Their long wingspans will help, but their responsibilities will be significant. Perhaps that’s why Quinn pegged free agent Keanu Neal to play WILL on passing downs next year.
Quinn also has a history of drafting smaller and quicker athletes to play WILL for him. That should indicate a clear blueprint in which to follow.
Linebackers to target
The linebackers that fit aren’t the Micah Parsons type that run and chase but are deficient in coverage ability. Rather they’re the guys who play like JOK or Jabril Cox – smarter, quicker, and more versatile guys who can cover.
It‘s the way the game is going too. The NFL is a passing league and teams throw the ball far more often than they run it. If you’re going to pick a trait to focus on, it should be the one that’s going to be used more. Additionally, passing is much more dangerous in today’s NFL. Only a handful of teams even produced positive EPA running the ball last year.
More often than not, running the ball hurts an offense more than helps the offense, so why draft a guy whose best trait is stopping the run? Even on the Cowboys defense last year, the passing defense gave up far more expected points through the air than they did on the ground. It sounds crazy but the numbers don’t lie (see also chart above).
In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys should be targeting linebackers, but they don’t need to use a top pick this season to do so. What they need to do is focus on what’s missing right now – and that’s coverage ability.
Which linebackers are you targeting in the NFL Draft?