Dallas Cowboys: The predicament at the linebacker position

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports /

Instead of Micah Parsons, the Dallas Cowboys really wanted one of the top two cornerbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft. As fate would have it, both CBs were taken right before the Cowboys picked. With no other corner within range on their board, they had the choice of a guard or a linebacker, and as we know, the Cowboys went with the linebacker.

The pick of Micah Parsons signaled a potential end of oft-criticized Jaylon Smith. The money paid to Smith never really made him a post-June 1 cut as many thought, so it appeared Smith would be on the roster for at least 2021.

Training camp kicked off and Jaylon Smith, Micah Parsons, and a healthy Leighton Vander Esch were slotted as the top three linebackers on the roster. When the first unofficial depth chart came out the team had Smith as the “Mike” linebacker, Vander Esch as the “Will” Linebacker, and Parsons as the “Sam” linebacker. Jabril Cox appeared to be heading toward a “red shirt” season to gain a little weight, and Keanu Neal was a hybrid safety/linebacker. The depth beyond Neal would eventually get sorted out, and then the first two preseason games happened.

The Dallas Cowboys are now staring at a curious case of their linebackers and what to do with them.

The preseason games showed how much faster Vander Esch and Parsons were looking compared to Smith. However, people thought it could still work if the Cowboys were to “hide” Smith and have him play downhill. Then Keanu Neal and Jabril Cox started playing really well and popping off the screen.

This isn’t to say everything Smith has done has been bad, but rather not as strong as the others. Sure, there has been some mediocre play, but the common thought is Smith is now expendable and may not be one of the starting three linebackers.

The truth about linebackers in this era of football is teams play a lot of “Nickle” coverage, which usually leaves two linebackers on the field and the traditional 3 or 4 linebacker sets tend to be rotated around a little, and specialists are brought in. For instance, a Keanu Neal would come in on coverage situations and say a Jaylon Smith would be brought in for short yardage or pass rushing. Look across the league and teams don’t really use linebackers like they used to even ten years ago.

Some of the reasons for the change have been the rule changes benefiting the offense, and more so, passing. This leaves linebackers having to drop into coverage against a new era of tight ends and running backs being used more and more out of the backfield. If a linebacker can’t cover, they become a liability. Defending in space is something teams scheme linebackers to do, and Smith is struggling in space.

It looks like the defensive line is improved, which is helping the linebackers more than 2020, but Smith still looks a step slow and at times falters in recognition. Neal has been much better in coverage and has shown more physicality than many thought he would provide. While Cox has also shown more physicality, there are still some concerns over the course of a season about how he will hold up, but he has impressed.

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So looking toward the cuts and final roster, I find it hard to believe they will release Smith, but him being one of the top three linebackers is now uncertain. The question will be if Neal is the third, where do the Cowboys line Parsons and LVE up at? The Cowboys want to do a lot with Parsons, but Smith’s play could throw a small wrench into just how much they move Parsons around if they can not trust Smith. A trade is a possibility, but it is believed the Cowboys won’t get much in return.

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With the “dress rehearsal” game this week, we could see a better picture of how the Cowboys see the linebacker position. The only real answer we have is that LVE and Parsons are for sure starters, it now seems everything else is up in the air. The Cowboys and the front office love Smith, so there could still be a reason we will see him as a top-three linebacker, but that window is slowly closing.

  • Published on 08/17/2021 at 11:46 AM
  • Last updated at 08/17/2021 at 11:50 AM