FRISCO, TX — One thing was made evident in 2023 by the Dallas Cowboys' defense, and that's the fact that linebackers do, in fact, matter. Some of the struggles in run defense were attributable to the lack of size in the LBs room, Damone Clark notwithstanding, and a career-threatening injury to Leighton Vander Esch only made matters instantly worse.
With Dan Quinn now in Washington with the Commanders, and Mike Zimmer replacing him as defensive coordinator, it's likely the Cowboys revisit their approach to the linebacker position.
It feels like a foregone conclusion that they will, considering just how prominent linebackers have historically been to Zimmer's defenses in the past.
And that would be welcome news, in my opinion.
Take a look below at where everything stands now, and where it should soon.
Past: I'd be remiss if I didn't lead the discussion on past Cowboys linebackers without highlighting both DeMarcus Ware and Chuck Howley, the latest two legendary LBs from Dallas immortalized during the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony in Canton.
Yes, Ware was more or less an edge rusher but that was because he was an outside linebacker operating primarily in a 3-4 defensive scheme, and one of the best to ever do it, as well.
Howley is often overlooked for whatever reason, finally getting his due as a HOFer this year, but what he did on the field for the Cowboys deserves roses; and lots of them. It was players like Howley, Lee Roy Jordan and Thomas Henderson who set the standard that others chased throughout their careers with the Cowboys.
And while not every one of them reached the greatest of heights, for varying reasons (e.g., Eugene Lockhart was tasked with trying to drag the Cowboys out of the leanest of Tom Landry's final years in Dallas), they deserve to be honored as the founding fathers at the position.
Names like Ken Norton, Jr. come to mind, along with the dynamic duo of Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen, leading up to the dominance of Sean Lee, whose career might've put him in the Ring of Honor and/or Hall of Fame if not slowed and ended prematurely due to injury.
Can the new age of linebackers match serve with the greatness that preceded them?
Present: Yes, I've mentioned Micah Parsons with the EDGE rushers in the piece that preceded this column, but it's also true that he's still listed as an off-ball linebacker who, at times, can be found playing that very position. As such, he remains the leader of two units, which goes to just how special he is and can be.
Parsons aside, there's a lot to be desired at the linebacker position in Dallas. I enjoy the flashes of gains put on display in Year 2 by Damone Clark, and Year 3 should show more consistency, yes, but he remains a young player who could benefit from having a tried-and-true veteran linebacker playing beside him. The plan was for that person to be Leighton Vander Esch, but there's a realistic chance that the former Pro Bowler has played his last football snap, though that will be determined this offseason, after Vander Esch suffered a[nother] neck injury that forced him to injured reserve in 2023.
Whether Vander Esch returns or not, it doesn't change what needs to happen going forward, but more on that in a moment.
Without Vander Esch as a green dot (play communicator) on the field and mentoring real-time adaptations on the field, the move to sign Rashaan Evans was hoped to salve the wound, but didn't. Evans was eventually released with little impact and DeMarvion Overshown was not running out of the tunnel to try and save the day, considering the rookie fourth-round pick suffered a torn ACL in the preseason that turned him into a redshirt in Year 1.
Malik Jefferson and Buddy Johnson were activated from the practice squad a maximum number of times to try and help, but most of their impact arrived via special teams, and while Johnson has been signed to a futures deal, Jefferson is currently a free agent.
Enter Markquese Bell, who had a career season as an NFL sophomore, and despite being moved from safety to linebacker by Dan Quinn to fill the void left by an injured Overshown, though there were things Bell struggled with as well — e.g., size versus bigger running backs and in trying to disengage from offensive linemen to make an impact on run defense.
Which brings us full circle to my original point: other than Clark (and Parsons, at times), there are no archetypal and explosive linebackers on the roster … at all.
Future: And that's where the team's focus needs to be going forward as they address the position. The return of Overshown looms, and that's exciting, to say the very least, but let's temper it with reality.
Fact is, it's difficult to quickly return to form from a torn ACL and the added challenge here is that the former Longhorn also hasn't taken a single regular season snap in the NFL yet — which means he'll be up against both the return from injury itself as well as the learning curve that comes with the position; so it's best to allow him some grace here.
Oh, and will LVE return for 2024?
Only he knows at this point, but his glaring durability issue regarding his neck (and NFL future as a whole) will now remain front-and-center on every single rep even if he does suit up again.
With that being a known variable, the best plan of attack for an allegedly "all-in" team would be to find his replacement in free agency, and not in the tertiary waves. This is a position that requires a massive splash in the first wave when things kick off in mid-March, and there is more than one name that comes to mind here (I'll list them in the next series, so stay tuned).
Revisiting the position in the 2024 NFL Draft has to happen as well, in my opinion, though not necessarily with one of the first two picks — assuming the first part of my plan was executed well, and because the offensive line needs priority picks this offseason.
Roll up your sleeves and fix/upgrade the linebacker corps, Cowboys.
It's your turn, Zim.