Why Now, And What Comes Next At Linebacker?


FRISCO, Texas – For as much as it's been discussed over the past year, this decision sure did catch everyone off guard.

That's understandable. Given that the Cowboys were trying to save themselves some money by attempting to trade Jaylon Smith, it was in their best interest to keep this thought process under wraps.

After all, Smith's sizable contract and spotty game film were always going to make him difficult to trade. The possibility of a deal would be dead if it was also made known they were willing to cut him.

But a deal never materialized, and the decision is made. It might not be finalized, but the Cowboys have decided to move on from Smith, their former No. 34 overall pick.

The financial reasoning has been made known. By opting to part ways now, the Cowboys are protecting themselves from the possibility of being on the hook for roughly $9 million in 2022. Smith's salary for next season was guaranteed for injury, which means he'd have been assured that $9 million if anything serious were to happen to him this season.

It's also hard to ignore a few football factors that help answer the all-important question of what comes next.

With all due respect to Smith, this is easy to guess at because we've already gotten a look at what this defense looks like with him playing a small role.

During the season opener, when the defensive line was much healthier and Keanu Neal was available, Smith played a mere 16 snaps of defense, opening the door for Neal and Micah Parsons to dominate the snap count as the team's predominant nickel linebackers.

Other factors have obviously come in to play. After averaging 75% of the snaps the first two weeks, Neal missed the last two due to COVID-19. A bevy of losses along the defensive front also moved Parsons down to defensive end for much of the last month.

Some of that is already starting to change. Neal is expected back this week. And while the coaching staff is sure to keep an eye on his conditioning after missing two weeks with an illness, it's apparent they think he can handle one of the predominant linebacker roles.

Perhaps the more interesting question is how this will affect Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch. For all the focus on Smith this season, Vander Esch has played a surprisingly low number of snaps, tallying just 135 on the season – though he is averaging 67% in the last two weeks.

Is that a look at what's to come? DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong are still out with injuries, so Parsons' presence may still be needed on the defensive line. Sunday's win against Carolina saw him play more linebacker than he had since the season opener, but it'd be a mistake at this point to assume Parsons' role is going to stay exactly the same from week to week.

It could be as simple as a three-man platoon – Neal playing on the weak side, Vander Esch manning the middle and Parsons freelancing between whichever roles the coaches have assigned him that week.

There are other wrinkles to consider, too. One of the most pleasant surprises of the season has been the versatility of Jayron Kearse. And while it's obvious that Kearse predominantly plays as a defensive back, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has moved him into the box on a number of occasions – including as a sort of "big" dime back, functioning in essence as a linebacker in passing situations. With Donovan Wilson expected to return from injury at some point, perhaps that's a way to get both players onto the field.

Then, there are the young guys to consider. With one of the longstanding veterans being removed from the room, it's hard not to think immediately of Jabril Cox. The fourth-round draft pick looked wonderful in the preseason, but he has largely been relegated to special teams this season. The same can be said for third-year veteran Luke Gifford.

The duo played the final four snaps of regulation in the blowout win against Philadelphia, but otherwise they are accounting for a hefty amount of special teams snaps – 64% for Cox and 73% for Gifford.

It's hard to imagine either player vaulting over the veterans in front of them immediately. But Cox in particular was touted for his range and coverage ability during the draft process, and that makes him an intriguing option. It's a long season, and it'll be interesting to see if injuries or natural development could help either player get more time on defense.

The bottom line is that the Cowboys have options, which is something we've all known since the dust settled after the draft, with Parsons and Cox joining a group that already included three established veterans.

This outcome was always possible – maybe even inevitable. But with the right financial incentive, not to mention a wealth of depth, the Cowboys had plenty of reasons to accelerate the timeline.

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