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Science Lab: Reigniting the Cowboys defensive core


Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

(Editor's 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 — I mean, let's be honest with each other here. The crust of anything is only as good as the center of it. Donuts are made better with filling, pizza wouldn't be a thing without its own delicious inner workings and even the ground you're standing on literally matters only because the center of this planet has things all figured out.

So when wondering what went wrong for the Dallas Cowboys' defense in the recent humiliating playoff against Jordan Love and the Green Bay Packers, a lot of the answers lie within the center of the group.

Where the hell did all of the linebackers go?

With Mike Zimmer back in the building, returning as Cowboys' defensive coordinator for 2024, in the wake of Dan Quinn departing to become head coach of the Washington Commanders, you can bet Dallas will see a rebirth at the position — to say the very least.

But before we go spelunking into that a bit more, allow me to answer the question I posed above: I mean, seriously, what has happened to the portion of the Cowboys' defense that, in many seasons, has routinely been one of the few bright spots on that side of the ball?

I recall when the linebackers in Dallas were able to mask deficiencies at both defensive tackle and in the secondary, that is until recently, when the latter has taken a massive step forward at both safety and cornerback while the LBs group has moved in the opposite direction as far as both potency and depth are concerned.

Leighton Vander Esch will make a decision on his future soon, assuming he hasn't by the time this column reaches your retinas, and there's a more than realistic chance that he calls it a career after suffering another major neck injury.

That leaves Damone Clark as literally the only, and I do mean the only, archetypal linebacker on the entire active roster ahead of free agency and the 2024 NFL Draft. The other is Buddy Johnson, and I assure you he is a real person, but one currently on a futures deal after having spent that large majority of his 2023 season on the practice squad (after signing in October).

Malik Jefferson saw the field several times due to injury but took a total of only six defensive snaps in three games, and is now a free agent. Rashaan Evans was brought in to salve the wound of losing Vander Esch but, despite a flash or two, the fellow former first-round pick didn't play to the Cowboys' expectations and was ultimately released.

This simply will not do, especially on Zimmer's watch.

Markquese Bell performed above expectations, contextually speaking, seeing as he was tossed to the LB wolves (pun intended?) from the safeties room with little notice, but his lack of size began to become more of a liability at the position than his athleticism was an asset; and teams would simply aim their gargantuan offensive linemen at him to clear lanes for running backs.

As such, the expectation is he'll return to his home position to compete with Juanyeh Thomas, Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson for reps, with the future of Jayron Kearse still in flux.

And, so it goes, that Clark needs a partner or two in crime, much like his talented predecessors before him enjoyed, with promise surrounding the return of DeMarvion Overshown, yes, but consider he was a redshirt last year and, as such, is basically still a rookie … and one coming off of a torn ACL.

Some grace might be needed there, and possibly until 2025.

But considering Zimmer is on a one-year deal, and McCarthy is in the final year of his own contract, time is a luxury neither of them have right now.

It's "get right" time in Dallas.

When Sean Lee roamed the turf, he did so in rotation with Damien Wilson and Anthony Hitchens in, when healthy, what was a very good rotation of impact and versatile talent. It also takes only a glimpse at Zimmer's first stint with the Cowboys, one that stretched 13 years and includes a Super Bowl ring, to see just how dedicated the 67-year-old is to carrying impact LBs on his depth chart.

As a related sidebar, Wilson returned to the Cowboys just ahead of the playoffs last season, but wasn't elevated from the practice squad, and is not currently under contract for 2024.

Circling back, do the names Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen ring a bell, just as one example?

If they don't, you should probably consider applying for another team's fandom at worst and, at best, never admit this out loud and instead get to Googling both of those names.

The audacity.

Coakley and Nguyen are simply two names at off-ball linebacker that thrived under Zimmer, and there are many others that stretch to and through his time as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings as well (e.g., Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks). The overarching point here is that there has never been a defense run by Zimmer that hasn't featured dynamic play by the linebackers, and he arrives at a perfect time in Dallas — considering the current state of affairs in the middle of the defense.

Much of how Zimmer handles the position will hinge upon how he views all-world talent Micah Parsons, however, seeing as Parsons is still technically listed as a linebacker and has been utilized as such on several occasions — including some that have made me scratch my head like I was in a commercial for Selsun Blue.

But, as an edge rusher, he's arguably the best in the league alongside names like T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett and Maxx Crosby.

If Parsons is committed mostly to the role of EDGE, regardless of if it's in a 3-4 or 4-3 set (it's key to note Zimmer has coordinated both types of defenses and that this is also mostly irrelevant because nickel defense is base in today's NFL anyway), it will impact how the Cowboys address the remainder of the LBs depth chart this offseason.

Needless to say, if you've been following my "Open Market" series, you're readily aware of the list of primo talent entering this year's free agency pool, such as Bobby Wagner, that can step in and immediately turn things around for the Cowboys.

It's also true that almost regardless of how they attack the position in free agency, they'll need to add more firepower in the draft as well and, to that point, they've already heard Zimmer's whispers and were at the NFL Combine getting to know some of the premium prospects up close and personal.

One look at who they've shown interest in thus far hints largely at their inclination this offseason to make sure they don't have to ask any of their defensive backs to pretend they're carrying 30 more pounds of muscle than they actually are — for the sake of being a possible savior at linebacker.

LB meetings - FORMAL:

  • Edgerrin Cooper - Texas A&M
  • Junior Colson - Michigan
  • Ty'Ron Hopper - Missouri


  • Marist Luafau - Notre Dame
  • Tyrice Knight - UTEP
  • Jaylan Ford - Texas
  • Darius Muasau - UCLA
  • Curtis Jacobs - Penn State

"As we begin this process, it's a little different scheme," said vice president of player personnel Will McClay from Indianapolis. "We're looking for big, athletic football players. Finding guys that have those little nuances that [Zimmer] has. It's been great for us to spend time with the coaches and hear them talk to players and communicate so we can get a better feel for what that is as well.

"... We're always looking at linebackers. That's a position that in free agency and in the draft that we're going to have to look at because we want to add more players there."

Could that mean one is taken with a premium pick? Possibly. After all, this is the same team that used a first-round pick on both Vander Esch and Parsons in recent seasons, and while that feels less possible in 2024 and more realistic to view the position as a possible second-round move, when it comes to the NFL Draft, never say never.

Of course, someone is reading this right now and wondering why I haven't mentioned the other elephant in the room, and that's the defensive tackle position.

Well, that's because there's at least an in-house solution there, assuming Johnathan Hankins is re-signed, and others like Osa Odighizuwa at least guarantee the interior of the defensive line isn't in complete shambles in 2024.

The same can not be said for the linebackers, and besides, it's not as if Zimmer (who is also historically all-in on beefing up his interior D-line) doesn't have Cowboys' scouts and coaches meeting with the big boys as well.

"I think we're probably going to look more so at those bigger bodies inside, stopping that," McClay added.

Here, I'll prove it with a list of iDL meetings at the NFL Combine:


  • Mason Smith - LSU
  • Ruke Orhorhoro - Clemson
  • Kris Jenkins - Michigan
  • McKinnley Jackson - Texas A&M


  • Zion Logue - Georgia
  • Logan Lee - Iowa (+ Shrine Bowl meeting)
  • Fabian Lovett - Florida State
  • Leonard Taylor III - Miami (FL)
  • Logan Lee - lowa
  • Dewayne Carter - Duke

I'm sure that tickles your fancy, eh? And, again, there are inevitably more to come over the next several weeks, along with the fact free agency presents instant solutions as well.

With a name like Cooper on this list, an animal of a talent that would love to keep his talents in the Lone Star State, it's fair to at least believe the Cowboys are taking lessons learned from the 2023 season.

In other words, they messed around and found out at linebacker.

You can expect both the LB and DT list to grow as the draft process rolls along, with Official 30 visits set to take place in March, along with Dallas Day visits for local talent and NCAA Pro Days abound.

With such a talented pool of linebacker prospects trying to impress, and an LB-starved Cowboys' defense on the hunt to repair the heart of their defense — it should all make for the perfect storm of a solution being found in free agency and the draft, ideally.

The bottom line is that, at the edges or in the secondary, the Cowboys' defensive crust is in mostly great shape for the 2024 season. Zimmer's mission is to make sure the core is fixed, though, because otherwise there's no magnetic field to hold it all together anyway.

And with your powers combined …

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