FRISCO, Texas – As always, this is the uncertain time of the year.
Roughly one-third of NFL rosters turn over every offseason as each club looks for ways to improve its fortunes moving forward. The Cowboys are no different, as they'll face many tough decisions in the coming months.
With that in mind, we're evaluating each position on the roster and what choices face the front office in 2021. Part 4 focuses on the linebackers.
Just How Big Of A Draft Need Is This Position?
If you've followed the two other stories in Part 4, it should be clear that the Cowboys' linebacker situation is in an uncertain situation this offseason.
It's completely possible that this defense runs its entire linebacking corps back for another go in 2021, re-signing Sean Lee and Joe Thomas to affordable deals, keeping Jaylon Smith in place and even picking up Leighton Vander Esch's fifth-year option.
It's also easy to imagine Lee retiring and Thomas moving on, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Smith becomes a salary cap casualty as the team seeks to retool its defense. If Vander Esch's option isn't picked up, it's possible the Cowboys could have a completely different linebacker group as early as 2022.
Naturally, it's unlikely that all of those things come to pass. Smith's contract makes him difficult to part ways with, and even if Vander Esch doesn't have his option picked up, he'll still be a starter for this team in 2021.
Still, it'd be wise to think about the future. Even if he returns for another year, Lee can't play forever. The past two seasons don't inspire a ton of confidence that Vander Esch and Smith are the long-term answer. At the very least, they need quality depth behind them, and in a worse-case scenario this defense could use an infusion of young talent at the position.
That puts the need on a bit of a sliding scale.
One way or another, there need to be additions to the linebacker room. Whether it's Sean Lee or an outside free agent, it'd be smart to bring a veteran or two in to bolster the depth chart. Aside from the duo of Smith and Vander Esch, developmental prospects Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard are the only other linebackers under contract.
As far as the draft, the question entirely depends on your outlook for the future.
If your outlook is bleak, this could arguably be the Cowboys' biggest draft need. If the Cowboys want to release Smith or let Vander Esch hit free agency next year, it'd be totally understandable to draft a linebacker with the 10th overall pick. Penn State's Micah Parsons or perhaps Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah could step in and start from Day 1 if need be.
If your outlook is a bit more optimistic, perhaps it's not so severe. Vander Esch has played well when healthy, and it's certainly plausible he has the fifth year added to his contract. As disappointing as Smith's 2020 season might have been, he may be working in a much more familiar scheme this season under the guidance of Dan Quinn. It's not crazy to think the Cowboys give their star duo another opportunity to show their worth.
If that's the situation, then linebacker is still a draft need – but not a dire one. The Cowboys could bolster the position with any number of Day 2 or Day 3 options. From Alabama's Dylan Moses and LSU's Jabril Cox to North Carolina's Chazz Surratt and Ohio State's Baron Browning, there are a multitude of options that could fall to them later on in the draft.
The bottom line is that it'd be smart for the Cowboys to invest in the future of the linebacker position with a draft pick, maybe even two. Just how valuable that investment needs to be depends on the choices they make in the next few months – particularly about Smith, Vander Esch and Lee.