Skip to main content

Offseason | 2021

Roster Reset: Work Left To Do At Linebacker?


The free agent signing period is not over by any means, but it certainly has gotten quieter both with the Cowboys and around the league. The focus is shifting now to the NFL Draft, which is scheduled for April 29-May 1.

While it's still possible to see more moves between now and the draft, the bulk of the player movement has already passed. With that being said, let's take a quick look at each position on the roster and see where things stand heading into the draft later this month.

Today, we focus on the linebacker position.

What Changed? New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has a specific vision for the defense, and the Cowboys have added a few of his former players to expedite the transition.

Keanu Neal was a Pro Bowl safety in Atlanta under Quinn but will start off at linebacker, head coach Mike McCarthy said. The 215-pound Neal has been an effective box safety when healthy, so he's comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage.

Even if Neal isn't an every-down linebacker, he's a sure tackler with coverage skills who could play multiple spots based on matchups.

What's Here? Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are still the foundation at linebacker, and they've been a productive duo when healthy and their strengths maximized. Surely that's a top priority for Quinn. Last year Smith and Vander Esch swapped positions – Vander Esch to middle linebacker, Smith to the "WILL" spot. Could that flip again, with Neal taking some snaps on the weak side too?

Regardless, the defense struggled last season for a variety of reasons. More consistency up front will help Smith and Vander Esch flow to the ball and make tackles. The Cowboys made multiple signings (Brent Urban, Tarell Basham, Carlos Watkins) to improve the defensive line.

What's Next? Two starters (Smith, Vander Esch) and a linebacker/safety (Neal) don't make a full rotation. Backups Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford are under contract for 2021, but questions remain. Will Sean Lee return for an 11th season? Who replaces free agent departure Joe Thomas, a versatile backup who started four games for an injured Vander Esch last year? Reserve linebacker Justin March is still an unrestricted free agent.

More depth and competition is needed. Veteran additions can't be ruled out in this later stage of free agency. But with 10 picks, linebacker seems like a position the Cowboys will explore on draft weekend.

Related Content