The Dallas Cowboys defense could look a lot different in a few months. Now, I didn’t say better, but it could look quite different, specifically with their linebackers.
Right now, the Cowboys have a lot of premium picks invested into the position with not a ton of clarity to go along with it. Jaylon Smith was the team’s No. 34 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Leighton Vander Esch was their No. 19 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. And finally, Micah Parsons was the No. 12 overall pick this past draft. That’s a lot of pick value invested in a position where there’s still not a ton of confidence.
Smith was a feel-good pick, at the time, as he was coming off major knee surgery. After a stellar career with Notre Dame, Smith’s football days were in jeopardy after he tore his ACL and LCL in his team’s final game of the season. The Cowboys were okay with the risk given how talented Smith was and selected him early in the second round. Over the past three seasons, Smith has played in and started all 16 games—he played in all 16 games in 2017 as well with six starts. That part of his projection has been a big win. But as of late, Smith’s production on the field has really taken a hit. Last season was his least reliable yet.
As for Vander Esch, his rookie season in 2018 was his best, and the past two years have been subpar at best. As a first-round linebacker, you really need to bring a strong element of pass coverage to your game. According to Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch graded as one of the worst starting linebackers in the NFL last season in this area.
The recent struggles of both Smith and Vander Esch are likely what motivated the Cowboys to draft Parsons as highly as they did this past April. Not only did they select Parsons in round one, but they also selected LSU’s Jabril Cox in round four. After the draft, reports have come out that the Cowboys have received calls from other teams regarding a potential trade for Vander Esch specifically. Ultimately the Cowboys have declined these offers, and according to Jane Slater of NFL Network, the reason why is because they are “still very much a part of the defensive plan next year and in the future.”
Dan Quinn is the new defensive coordinator in Dallas and with him will come a 3-4 defensive front when the Cowboys are in base. With four linebacker roles, they could, in theory, get Smith, Vander Esch, and Parsons on the field at the same time with extra flexibility with Keanu Neal (who has converted from safety to linebacker) and Cox.
But is the dream of that worth it in the end?
Unless the Cowboys really plan on playing Parsons as a pass rusher most of the time—which could be the case since he was originally a pass rusher before transitioning to off-ball linebacker—Parsons will naturally eat into Vander Esch’s playing time. The Cowboys also declined Vander Esch’s fifth-year option on his rookie contract; the correct move since Vander Esch has yet to finish a full year healthy. That means he’s scheduled to hit free agency this summer.
So here’s where the Cowboys have now placed themselves. Either Vander Esch does well enough this upcoming season to earn a big contract, which the Cowboys both could not afford and would be fools to give him given they just drafted a linebacker at No. 12 and are paying another (Smith) $11.4 million per year. Or, Vander Esch plays poorly, is replaced, and you just said no to trades months prior that no longer exist.
What might ultimately save the Cowboys is if Vander Esch performed so well that he garners a third- or fourth-round comp pick via the future contract he could sign with another team. Maybe the Cowboys are playing that game. Given that Vander Esch has not played a full season healthy yet, if the Cowboys were getting a fourth-round pick in a trade offer, they would be wise to consider it.
As for Smith, he’s currently playing on a six-year, $68.4 million extension he signed two offseasons ago. The Cowboys’ salary cap could benefit greatly by trading Smith, as he would save them $7 million if traded this year, a number that only goes up as the years go on. But, would a team be willing to trade for such a contract? Likely not. So it’s unlikely they’re even getting many offers they would consider.
The Cowboys’ defense was the fifth-worst in the NFL last year with 29.6 points per game given up on average. They already made a big change with their defensive coordinator following that season, but perhaps that’s not the only change they will (or should) make.