Skip to main content

What's Next? The Wolf at the Cowboys LB Door


Micah Parsons is who most will think of at LB for the Cowboys, but the position of true LB in Dallas was dominated by Leighton Vander Esch in 2022, and he is again a free agent

FRISCO, TX — You've seen what poor linebacker play can lead to in the NFL and, particularly, for the Dallas Cowboys. You've also seen what dominant LB play can help a defense truly become, seeing as it's the literal center of the entire defensive unit.

It's a position the Cowboys have had a lot of success with over the course of the franchise's existence, but also one they've whiffed on a time or two. The goal in 2023 is to keep what's working, i.e., Leighton Vander Esch, and build around him with scintillating talent like Damone Clark.

But with free agency approaching, the Cowboys have some work to do, and the product of that work will dictate their entire offseason plan at the position. As will the progress, or lack thereof, of other players the team is counting on to take the next step.

This offseason's final edition of "What's Next?" walks into the LBs room and assesses the current state of affairs in Dallas.


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 set to be immortalized in a few months 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.

So as the new group of linebackers hit the ground running in Dallas, to say they have a lot to live up to is an understatement of enormous proportions.


I know, when you think of Cowboys linebackers in the present tense, you rightfully think of Micah Parsons, and that's fair, considering he entered the league as an LB whose versatility was put on full display as a rookie before being most assigned to defensive end duties in Year 2 — putting on another dominant performance in the process. But, seeing as the latter is true, I assigned him to the defensive line portion of the "What's Next?" series.

And that turns my attention to the "true" linebackers on this roster, Leighton Vander Esch being the headliner of that regiment.

The decision to use a first-round pick (19th-overall) on Vander Esch was roundly criticized by many but, before his rookie season was said-and-done, there had been enough crow swallowed to choke a Kraken. LVE flew out of the gates in Year 1 en route to a Pro Bowl nod and a spot on the PFWA All-Rookie Team, but the injury bug would begin taking bites that created some concern on if he'd ultimately suffer the same fate as Lee or Nguyen before him: a dominant LB whose body won't allow him to be.

Those concerns were put to bed without dinner in 2022, another stellar season that saw LVE lead a LB corps wrought with youth and uncertainty (again, Parsons was mostly a DE). Things were stabilized a bit by the acquisition of Anthony Barr in training camp, but it was absolutely the LVE show in Dallas last season at linebacker.

Jabril Cox struggled to remain active and on the field in his first full season after suffering a torn ACL, and neither Malik Jefferson nor Devin Harper made an impact on the 53-man roster, with Harper spending the back half of the season on injured reserve and Jefferson relegated mostly to the practice squad (released and re-signed).

The lack of overall depth did lead to an opportunity for rookie fifth-round pick Damone Clark, however, who beat the odds of potentially facing a redshirt season to return from spinal fusion surgery in 2022 and, despite some learning curve hiccups, showed flashes of unbridled fury that hints at what Year 2 and beyond might bring.

Clark helped save the day in the absence of an injured Barr and in the short absence of Vander Esch in December, joining an unheralded but skilled Luke Gifford in staving off disaster at the position down the stretch.


That's because Vander Esch is set to become an unrestricted free agent for the second time in as many years, having seen his fifth-year option declined by the Cowboys before signing a one-year, prove-it deal in Dallas; and then going on to do just that: prove it.

He finished second to only safety Donovan Wilson in tackles with 90 combined, and he reached that number despite having missed the final three regular season contests with a pinched nerve in his shoulder.

He was key in helping to anchor the run defense and played sideline to sideline like a man possessed, his locker room leadership being unquantifiable — helping Barr acclimate quickly while also mentoring Clark and other young linebackers.

Keeping him onboard for 2023 has to be a top priority in the FA discussion.

Also a priority will be fully unleashing Clark in his second year, because he has the makings of something special and could easily be the steal of the 2022 NFL Draft, by a mile. But, in doing so, it makes me wonder where Barr fits into the equation, not to say he doesn't, but more so as a rotational player versus taking snaps away from Clark. If Barr is amenable to this, re-sign him quickly, because it remains unclear who else is ready to step up at the moment.

Gifford, also a special teams ace, is set to join LVE in free agency, but should be a less expensive and easier retention, so that's promising news (though it's not a guarantee).

Another full offseason for Cox should put him on the upswing, but the onus is on him to prove that to be true when training camp rolls around. The same goes for Jefferson, having been signed to a futures deal for an opportunity to build himself up more in the eyes of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and Devante Bond is still around as well to try and assist the unit.

In the end, Vander Esch's decision will largely dictate how the Cowboys are forced to approach this portion of their depth chart in 2023.

If he stays, name his sidekick (Clark), sign/re-sign a proven veteran (Barr or an outside free agent), draft a LB in the middle rounds and let the competition behind the top 3 guys ensue. If he leaves, well, you probably won't sit around until the middle rounds waiting to draft one.

For as unjustifiably maligned as Vander Esch has been by some in the fan base, replacing him is not/would not be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination. Re-sign him and get back to having a howling good time at the MIKE role next season.

Put the Monie -... er… um… money in the middle.

Where's it at? In the middle.

P.S. Bring Sean Lee back as an assistant coach in 2023, thanks.

Related Content