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LB: Smooth Transition For Jaylon Smith?
How will defensive changes impact the Cowboys’ veteran linebacker group? We take a closer look at the position all week.
By Rob Phillips May 29, 2020

With the NFL Draft completed and free agency at least slowing down here as the summer approaches, it's time to take a closer look at every position.

Each day, we will dissect a different aspect about the position, ranging from position battles, to under-the-radar players, to simply answering questions that have yet to be resolved.

This week, we continue the series with the linebacker position:

Need to Figure Out

Smooth Transition For Jaylon Smith?

Need to Figure Out

How can defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme benefit Jaylon Smith?

For the last three years, Smith has been the starting middle linebacker in the Cowboys' base 4-3 scheme. As the 'quarterback' on defense, he's responsible for getting the group lined up pre-snap and making sideline-to-sideline plays. He reached his first Pro Bowl last year with 168 tackles in the first season of a new five-year contract extension.

Smith might be a linebacker first, but he also has a knack for getting to the quarterback.

That type of versatility seems like a good fit for Nolan, who has implemented a base 4-3 and 3-4 scheme at previous stops. He doesn't seem to view those designations as rigid ones. The Cowboys are still classifying themselves as a 4-3 defense, but Nolan emphasizes his goal is to get the "best 11" on the field and find ways to maximize their talents.

How that will look on the field remains to be seen. But if the Cowboys were to mix and match personnel and looks more than past years, it might accentuate Smith's strengths as a pass rusher. He has 7.5 career sacks since 2017, including 2.5 last year. In 2018 he became the first Cowboys defender since Keith Brooking in 2009 to record at least 150 tackles and 4 sacks.

Ready to Compete

Could Luke Gifford Make Some Noise?

Ready to Compete

At full strength, there's little debate about the Cowboys' top three linebackers: Leighton Vander Esch (who's on his way back from January neck surgery), Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee.

But linebacker is such a physically demanding position, and all three have missed time with injuries in their careers. That adds an extra layer of value to the backup spots.

Could Luke Gifford make a jump in Year 2? A year ago, he made the team as a rookie free agent despite missing a large part of training camp with an ankle injury suffered in the preseason opener – the same game he picked off a pass against the 49ers. He appeared in six regular-season games on special teams before landing on injured reserve in December with a broken arm.

Don't forget about Joe Thomas, a former starter for head coach Mike McCarthy in Green Bay who can fill in at multiple linebacker spots and help on special teams.

Justin March is back for a fourth season with the club but has primarily played special teams. Undrafted rookies Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara and Ladarius Hamilton will push for the active roster or practice squad.

Don't Forget About

Sean Lee Has Goals For Rest Of Career

Don't Forget About

Sean Lee's impact on this group as he enters the second decade of his Cowboys career.

Lee will be 34 years old when the regular season kicks off in September. This will be his 11th season, far more than any linebacker on the roster. 2019 wasn't a career year, but quietly it was one of his best.

Lee played a full 16 games for the first time – a personal triumph after battling hamstring problems for two straight seasons. He also finished second on the team with 109 tackles despite playing just over a third of the defensive snaps in the first six games as the starting strong-side linebacker. Leighton Vander Esch's midseason neck injury moved Lee back to his old weak side spot, and he played well down the stretch.

At this point in his career, Lee has taken a year-by-year approach to playing, and his production last season convinced him that he could still help the team. The Cowboys agreed and reached a new one-year deal with him in March.

Vander Esch is expected to return healthy this season. But Lee's value is still evident. He can play any linebacker position, and he'll continue to be a mentor for Vander Esch and fellow starter Jaylon Smith.

It remains to be seen how many more years Lee will play. But his goals have never changed.

"Obviously being here for as long as I have been, it's a place where I want to retire and hopefully fulfill a goal of winning a championship," Lee said in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio in March. "… And for me, hopefully winning a championship with the Cowboys and then in the future retiring there, that's always been my plan."

What We Know

Where Does The Group Rank At Full Strength?

What We Know

When everyone is healthy and playing their best, this is a linebacker group that can challenge most in the entire league.

They've got talent, experience, depth, and very little turnover from 2019. Veteran starter Sean Lee is returning for an 11th season. Backups Joe Thomas and Justin March were also brought back. Jaylon Smith made his first career Pro Bowl at middle linebacker and could see his game expand in an adjusted defensive scheme.

The biggest addition will be a healthy Leighton Vander Esch.

The 2018 Pro Bowler/All-Pro missed the better part of seven games last year with a neck injury that required surgery in January. He recently told NFL Network's Jane Slater that he's "ready to roll," and indeed, his recovery is right on schedule. The current 'virtual' offseason format doesn't allow for team workouts, but the Cowboys likely circled training camp as the true on-field target for Vander Esch anyway. Lee did a nice job sliding from the strong side to Vander Esch's weak side spot down the stretch last year, but Vander Esch's physical style can be an energy boost for the entire defense.

Overall, the linebackers will be seeking more consistency. Missed tackles were an issue for the entire defense in losses last year. When they're playing fundamental, assignment-sound football, this can be a dominant group. And the Cowboys' added size up front – veterans Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy, rookie Neville Gallimore – could give the linebackers more space to roam and make plays.

What's New

This Veteran Group Will Hear A New Voice

What's New

From a personnel standpoint, not much has changed.

The Cowboys have mostly maintained continuity at linebacker this offseason. At this point, the only new roster additions are undrafted rookies Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara and Ladarius Hamilton.

The biggest change has occurred in the (virtual) meeting room.

Last year's linebackers coach Ben Bloom was not retained on Mike McCarthy's new staff. Bloom's replacement, Scott McCurley, is a longtime assistant for McCarthy. He started as an intern on McCarthy's first Packers staff in 2006 and worked up the ranks over the next decade, ultimately settling into an assistant linebackers role in Green Bay.

In Dallas, he'll work with a talented combination of youth and experience led by Pro Bowler Jaylon Smith, 11-year veteran Sean Lee, and 2018 first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, who's working back from January neck surgery.

McCarthy says the Cowboys are still classified as a 4-3 defense but emphasizes that the coaches will tailor the scheme to the players' skills. Could that mean some new responsibilities for the linebackers under McCurley and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan? It's possible. But the faces are mostly the same.

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