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FRISCO, TX — As the 2023 NFL Combine approaches, it's time to start [also] turning attention to draft prospects, but not at the sacrifice of keying in on which free agents should be on the Dallas Cowboys radar, considering legal tampering begins on March 13 with free agency officially kicking off two days later.
Leighton Vander Esch is the headliner for this group, seeing as Micah Parsons is essentially a defensive end nowadays, but the former is heading into free agency after proving himself in a big way in 2022. If the "Wolf Hunter" can't come to terms on a deal with the Cowboys, he'll leave behind some cavernous shoes to fill, but there are some who could step in and do it.
Leighton Vander Esch:
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a player being absent for his value to be truly put on display, and that was the case for Vander Esch in 2023. Many outside of the building didn't recognize just how much he meant to the Cowboys defense — particularly the run defense — over the course of the season until he went down with a pinched nerve in his shoulder that cost him several games in December.
The linebacker corps instantly took a step back, and despite the emergence of rookie fifth-round pick Damone Clark. Vander Esch is back in top form and reminiscent of the guy the Cowboys used a first-round pick on in 2018, having now turned his one-year deal in 2022 into a justifiable conversation as to why a multi-year deal should be on his desk soon.
When the Cowboys signed the four-time Pro Bowler to the roster in training camp, it was with the expectation he'd own the starting role alongside Vander Esch and, as such, allow Micah Parsons to be committed more fully/often to the role of defensive end. Things worked out exactly in that manner, and though Barr had some uneven moments over the course of the season, he was also lights-out at times (check the tape against the Rams, as one example).
Now an unrestricted free agent for a second offseason in a row, count me in on attempting to re-sign Barr, but only with the caveat that it doesn't interfere with the growth of what could be a Pro Bowl talent in Clark. A veteran like Barr adds mentorship and football IQ to an LB equation already brimming with it in LVE, and the more, the better.
On a quieter but still important note, Gifford joins Barr and LVE in the Club of Expiring Contracts, and there can be little doubt the Cowboys would like to have him back in the building. It would easily be a low-cost contract but one that keeps one of the best special teams players in the building from heading elsewhere — Gifford having also proven himself a viable depth option on defense following the loss of LVE to the aforementioned pinched nerve.
He's also highly familiar with a system under special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel that some others are working to learn, so while he won't be anywhere near the most heralded player entering free agency, he's still a meaningful one in Dallas.
Damone Clark, Jabril Cox and Co.:
It feels obvious to me that the Cowboys can't afford to lose both LVE and Barr, considering the existing lack of depth at the position. Clark has a chance to be special, and that's not hyperbole when considering what he battled back from to get onto the field in 2022 and in dissecting his best moments as a rookie. But what about Jabril Cox? Is he finally ready to get back to LSU form in what will be his second offseason removed from suffering a torn ACL??
The team hopes and expects so, but the fact that's still a question mark goes to my overarching point that the LB position behind LVE, Barr and Clark is wildly unsettled. Re-signing Malik Jefferson to a futures deal pits him against other young talent like Devante Bond and Devin Harper but, needless to say, much more gunpowder will be needed going forward (and/or for more than just Clark to show any explosiveness).
What's Out There:
Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 15, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date — recently released players notwithstanding.
All David does is get the job done, weekly. It can't be argued that while no one else on this list is that one particular linebacker in Los Angeles who may or may not be officially released on March 15, it's also true that David is the next best thing: a decorated NFL veteran who remains a game-wrecker and who also doesn't miss games. The 33-year-old started in all 18 games for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2022, which includes the playoff loss to the Cowboys, having put forth 166 regular season starts in his 11-year career (an 15.9 regular season starts per season).
Better still is the fact he's not simply on the field, he often owns the field to the point where I'm not convinced he doesn't carry the deed around in his helmet. A three-time All-Pro and Super Bowl champion, David can cover, get after the quarterback and make tackles in the open field — a hat trick of LB talent that would benefit the Cowboys greatly and who might help uncage the dragon peeking from inside of Damone Clark's cage (and help Cox to level up as well).
Looking for a more youthful add at linebacker, while understanding this would also be more about a mix of potential and early evidence of impact rather than a bulletproof résumé of the latter, then Edmunds is right up your alley. Sitting at a spry 24 years of age, the former 16th-overall pick from the 2018 NFL Draft (yes, just three picks ahead of Vander Esch at that same event) has immediately become one of the most notable LBs in the league.
But despite his youth, Edmunds already has 74 starts in his five years with the Buffalo Bills and as he wraps his fifth-year option with an eye on free agency, he does so with two Pro Bowl nods already along with five interceptions and 565 combined tackles. With this type of youth and high ceiling comes a high cost, however, but one that can be balanced out for over a longer contract term.
If the previous three names are too rich for your blood, just know it means alternatives may or may not provide you with an immediate impact or, if they do, one that could be directly comparable but, that being said, Long presents himself as a potentially great value that could very well end up being Dan Quinn's latest underrated free agent turned show-stopper. The 26-year-old is a former Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year (West Virginia) and someone I view as a sleeper in free agency.
Long has improved year-over-year since joining the Tennessee Titans as their sixth-round pick in 2019, going from a rotational late-round pick to part-time starter to an eventual full-timer — delivering a career year in most categories in 2022 before a hamstring injury held him to roughly 12 starts/games. Long would be significantly less expensive than the others, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't/couldn't make waves for Quinn.
Honorable mention: T.J. Edwards
I do believe Edwards bears mentioning on this list, but admittedly with a bit of reservation on my part. That's because while the 26-year-old has put some good things on film with the Philadelphia Eagles, I struggle to justify what I think his price point will be (> $10 million per year) with what I'd need to have seen to this point. There's no denying he's a very good player, a linebacker who can both cover and tackle, but I'd like to see him be more effective when his number is called in blitz packages to go along with the things he does well.
I suppose my bottom line on Edwards is that I like him, but not necessarily at his potential price point, because if I'm going to spend that time of money on a linebacker not named [sic] or David, I'd give most of it to Vander Esch, sprinkle in Barr and/or Long, and call it a day.