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Open Market: Free agency flooded with LB options


(Note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, TX — What we have here is a failure to communicate. While Dan Quinn was playing the role of Cool Hand Luke as it pertained to the linebackers' room in 2023, the Dallas Cowboys were actually in dire straits at the position, largely due to injury.

The loss of rookie standout DeMarvion Overshown derailed his first year before it ever got started and forced an immediate pivot to Quinn penciling in safety Markquese Bell as the player who would take reps in the role planned for Overshown, and Leighton Vander Esch being lost to a season-ending (and possibly career-ending) neck injury in October made matters that much worse.

After all, LVE was not only the green dot, but also the most experienced linebacker in the room as well as one of only two actual linebackers on the active roster, the other being Damone Clark. An attempt to resolve the issue with Rashaan Evans didn't work, nor did elevations on Malik Jefferson or Buddy Johnson.

Well, Evans has been released and Jefferson wasn't signed to a futures deal, leaving only Clark and Johnson as the lone two true LBs on the entire roster.


Considering Mike Zimmer's defenses routinely feature/highlight stellar linebacker play, and from actual linebackers, it's time to take a look at how the Cowboys can fix what might be the biggest mess on their depth chart.

FYI: *Be sure to check out the entire ‘What’s Next?*' series as a primer to this one.

*What's Here: *

Damone Clark: It's unknown if LVE can and/or will return to football, but his decision should have zero impact on how the Cowboys address the position in trying to find someone dynamic to play in tandem with Clark. The former fourth-rounder is entering Year 3 of his rookie contract and he's shown flashes of what what he was at LSU prior to his predraft spinal fusion surgery, but he's still working to turn those flashes into consistent impact on a week in, week out basis.

And the absence of LVE as a green dot and a mentor for the young linebacker become more and more evident as the 2023 season rolled along, so adding a proven, respected and still-electric talent would likely land well in several ways.

Buddy Johnson: As mentioned, Johnson signed a futures deal with the Cowboys after joining the team's practice squad in 2023. He's already a journeyman in the league despite being only 24 years old, having had trouble sticking to a roster. The former fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M is still very developmental and not the immediate answer Zimmer will be looking for at linebacker — having only six combined tackles in six career games in the NFL.

Flexbacker: Bell was asked to move from safety to linebacker at a moment's notice and while he played admirably, impressively even, his lack of size was ultimately the point of attack for teams as the season went along. It feels more and more as if Zimmer will move Bell back to safety, and that could help that unit in the event Jayron Kearse departs in free agency.

Either way, Bell is a great player who has proven himself in spades this past season, but his base position is calling him to return in 2024.

*What's Out There: *

Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 13, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.

Bobby Wagner: Let's try this again, shall we? For what will amount to the third time in recent history, the likely future Hall of Fame linebacker will have a chance at joining the Cowboys. A nine-time Pro Bowler and 10-time (!!!) All-Pro will be a free agent in March, unless he and the Seahawks agree to something before then, and he needs no introduction here. You know who he is, and so does your hamster and goldfish.

Wagner would be electric in Zimmer's defense, immediately taking the LBs unit from being on ICU to being, dare I say, feared by opposition. He's 33 years old but if you care about that, it tells me you didn't watch him play, at all, in 2023. Hint: he earned his latest Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod … in 2023.

His accolades are many, his Super Bowl ring is shiny, and his play speaks for itself. And considering he's already earned more than $102 million in his illustrious career, maybe, just maybe, he's willing to play nice financially for a shot at earning a second ring.

Jordyn Brooks: Since we're talking about Seahawks' linebackers, go ahead and toss Brooks in the mix here for me. A former first-round pick of Seattle's in 2020, this would be more of a long-term option than Wagner — my thought on the latter being a two-year deal (maybe three, if that's what it takes to get him to Dallas). For Brooks, 26, there's an entire, and promising, NFL career still ahead of him and it doesn't hurt that he's learned alongside one of the best to ever do it.

Brooks is a heat-seeking missile at linebacker. In his second NFL season, he amassed 109 solo tackles (189 COMBINED) and that put the league on notice that he was a problem. In only four seasons, he's produced 309 combined tackles and 16 pass deflections in only four seasons. He'd tandem well with what the level-up that might be coming from Clark in 2024.

Lavonte David: Not unlike Wagner, David has been a staple of his team's defense for a long time now and, not so coincidentally, is also approaching his mid-30s while still playing at a high level. He also owns a Super Bowl ring and the three-time All-Pro remains durable, starting in 32 regular season games over the past two seasons and showing no glaring signs of slowing down.

He is actually moving in the opposite direction, producing more tackles and sacks, and the same amount of pass break ups, in 2023 as he did in 2022, and despite two fewer starts. He is a leader of the highest order and, like Wagner, instantly provides credibility to the Cowboys' linebackers room if they can make a deal with him.

Frankie Luvu: Oscillating back to the younger side of the list, Luvu jumps out at me in a big way. He's wrapping up a three-year deal with the Panthers that ended with two career-best seasons in a row, and he's also known to force fumbles when he gets near the ball. And for as good as he is as rushing the passer when he's sent at one — 12.5 sacks since 2022 — he's also statistically nearly a top-10 linebacker in stopping the run.

The 27-year-old enters this list in the same way as does Brooks, a young but established talent that can both contribute readily but that can also serve as a bit of a mentor. And the fact Luvu was able to climb from the ranks of the undrafted in 2018, and from a less-heralded program at Washington State, no less, to being on this list is the type of hunger and grind you have to love.

Azeez Al-Shaair: Brooks isn't the only one on this list of intriguing candidates for the Cowboys who spent time studying from an NFL legend. For the better part of his young career, Al-Shaair served as mostly an understudy to none other than Fred Warner, before he'd go on to sign with the Tennessee Titans in 2023 with the hopes of establishing himself as a full-time starter.

Mission accomplished, folks. In 17 starts, the 26-year-old set a career mark in tackles (163 combined, 84 solo), while adding four more pass break ups and another forced fumble to his stat line; and he's also been known to contribute heavily to special teams when needed, adding to his overall value to any team he'll join going forward.

Wishful thinking: Patrick Queen - I fully expect the Ravens to be smart and hit Queen with a franchise tag. There's simply no intelligent way to argue against it in the absence of a new deal, because he'll be, easily, the most sought-after linebacker in this year's free agency market and, as such, the bidding war would be hell on Earth for the Ravens' front office. It's always better to negotiate against yourself, as the tag allows, but … man … just imagine Queen in a Cowboys' uniform. It's enough to make you look for a change of pants.

Honorable mention: Josey Jewell, Tyrel Dodson, Oren Burks, Willie Gay Jr., Devin White - This is the best of the rest, in my opinion, including Jewell, who serves as the green dot on defense and, keep in mind, that's the role vacated by the injury to LVE. I'm not entirely sold on White being the answer, because the Cowboys need a linebacker who isn't simply excellent at blitzing (they already have one of those), but also one who can cover sideline to sideline and that's simply not White's claim to fame; but he's still worthy of a mention. Dodson, Burks and Gay peak my attention, three next-tier talents who are capable of being what Dallas and Zimmer needs them to be, but not to the level as Wagner, Brooks, David or Al-Shaair.

All told, this is one of the best pool of free agent linebackers in a long time, and considering the pool of draft prospects is arguably thin in 2024, the Cowboys have that much more incentive to make a major splash at the position in free agency — so go and hook a whale.

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