Editor's Note: With the understanding that position battles, roster spots and other football questions take a major backseat to the bigger issues that have been presented by COVID-19, our staff will attempt to tackle 20 of the bigger questions that this team and league faces as we get ready for the 2020 season. Today, we continue the series discussing the Cowboys' linebacker position.
At full strength, the Cowboys have one of the deepest linebacker groups in the league. But after a Pro Bowl rookie season, Leighton Vander Esch missed the better part of eight games with a neck injury that required surgery in January.
Will Vander Esch and the linebackers bounce back in 2020? The DallasCowboys.com staff debates.
Rob Phillips: I do expect Vander Esch to rebound from a challenging second season. He was consistently on track in his recovery throughout the offseason, and from everything you hear, he's very diligent about his approach to the game. The Cowboys have seen former players, including Daryl "Moose" Johnston, return successfully after neck surgery. The pandemic obviously impacted this year's offseason program, but Vander Esch likely wouldn't have done much on-field work before training camp anyway. They need him back and productive because the defense feeds off his energy and big hits. Jaylon Smith, too. I'm interested to see if Mike Nolan's scheme creates more opportunities for Smith to showcase his skills as a pass rusher. Sean Lee had a good season playing a couple of different spots and he should be fresh for his 11th year. Adding more size to the interior defensive line could help the linebackers run and chase more plays. When they're assignment and fundamentally sound, this is a dynamic group.
David Helman: If I'm looking around this roster for something to feel excited about, it might be the chance for this linebacker group to work with a new coaching staff. Mike Nolan has been coaching defense in the NFL since before Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were born, and he most recently served as the linebackers coach in New Orleans, where he helped Demario Davis blossom into an All-Pro. It's also worth noting that linebackers coach Scott McCurley helped Clay Matthews transition from a pass rusher to an inside linebacker in Green Bay. There's some expertise on this coaching staff, and the roster clearly has the talent to benefit from that. If Vander Esch can maintain his health, I have high hopes that he'll soon look like the guy we remember from 2018. And I might be even more excited about Smith, because I'm hoping this staff has the creativity to unlock him a bit – use him as a blitzer, a pass rusher, a spy and a traditional linebacker. He's got the ability to do all of that. Throw in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas as possibly the best pair of backups in the league, and I have some high hopes that we'll see a big rebound year from this position group.
Nick Eatman: This is one of the more interesting positions on the team. Every one of the starters has some sort of question mark regarding their season. Can Leighton Vander Esch return to his Pro Bowl form? Is Jaylon Smith ready to take the next step and become an elite player? Can Sean Lee stay healthy enough again to be the same player he's been? Then again, all three of the starters have actually been to a Pro Bowl. What other team can say that about their linebackers, or really any position? That's what makes this so intriguing. Personally, I think LVE will be back. We won't know that until the first few regular season games but I'm counting on that happening. I also think the coaching staff will put Jaylon Smith in the right spot to be really good. He's not the best in coverage but he can be dynamic when he's going forward and attacking. And if Sean Lee is healthy, he's still good. It's up the Cowboys to manage his workload. Don't forget Joe Thomas is a really good backup. From 1-4, this is one of the best units in all of the NFL. If the staff can get them to play up to its potential, watch out.