Back & Forth: Is Linebacker Still A Need?


FRISCO, Texas - About a month into free agency, yet still more than two weeks before the draft, this is time where NFL teams usually hit the pause button for a moment.

Of course, the door isn't closed to add veterans and the draft process is well underway with meetings, interviews and we've even seen some league-wide trades to move around in the draft.

But for the most part, the dust has settled for now, knowing it will pick up significantly on April 28, the start of the draft.

So let's look back at each position, with a free-agent recap, and look ahead to see if there's more left to do.

Today, we'll continue with the linebacker position.

What Happened:

  • After testing the market in the first week of free agency, four-year starter Leighton Vander Esch returned on a new one-year deal.
  • Keanu Neal, who transitioned from safety to linebacker in his first season with the Cowboys, tied for third on defense with 79 tackles but was not re-signed. He reached a deal with the Bucs last week.
  • The Cowboys have not re-signed exclusive rights free agent Francis Bernard but did sign three-year veteran Luke Gifford to a new deal after he initially didn't receive a restricted free agent tender offer from Dallas. Gifford's linebacker snaps have been limited in a crowded depth chart, but he has been a productive special teams player.

What's Next:

It all starts with Micah Parsons, right? The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year emerged as a cornerstone on defense in 2021, and the Cowboys sound committed to keeping his versatile role intact -- part-time linebacker, part-time pass rusher -- rather than moving him to defensive end full-time to offset Randy Gregory's free-agent departure.

Vander Esch's return is significant given the veteran presence he provided last year. After missing 13 games due to injury the past two seasons, the 2018 first-round pick played in every game last year and posted the second-most tackles on defense (86) working alongside Parsons.

Last year's fourth-round pick Jabril Cox is working his way back from the torn ACL he suffered on Halloween night against the Vikings, but the Cowboys believe Cox can step into Neal's role -- roughly half the defensive snaps last season -- and be productive in coverage.

We covered Jayron Kearse's return to the roster in

Monday’s “Back & Forth” entry on the safety position, but Kearse factors into the linebacker position, too, because of his impact in the box when the Cowboys played their "big nickel" package last season.

"We feel good about (linebacker)," Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones told reporters in late March. "Some people consider Jayron Kearse a linebacker. We don't need as many linebackers as we used to because we play that hybrid style with the safeties there. But we are not heavy with numbers and certainly could do better there. But I wouldn't say it's a huge priority before the draft."

Feeling A Draft?

With nine picks, it's entirely possible the Cowboys address linebacker somewhere on draft weekend.

To Jones' point, the current 90-man roster features only five linebackers: Parsons, Vander Esch, Gifford, Cox and Devante Bond, who was on last year's practice squad. It seems likely they'll try to add more depth through the draft and/or post-draft rookie free agency.

Also worth noting: The Cowboys have drafted at least one linebacker in 12 of the last 15 drafts, including last year when Parsons went 12th overall.

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