DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys had several adjustments to make to their defense after last season's debacle. Things didn’t turn out how the team had hoped under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2020, which led to his ouster and the addition of new DC Dan Quinn. For Dallas, this was step one.
The defense will look very different from last year, and that has as much to do with having a new man leading the unit as it does having different personnel. While each level of the defense is under repair, no position for the Cowboys has gone through a transformation quite like the linebacker group.
Last season, the Cowboys had Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee as their top three at LB. Joe Thomas, who was the fourth man up, was forced to play more due to injuries, but the team didn't have much depth behind the top four. Luke Gifford, Justin March and rookie Francis Bernard all saw time, although none made much of an impact.
The top four LBs seemed solid enough on paper, but injuries and ineffectiveness revealed that the Cowboys were in need of an overhaul. Smith, the team’s top tackler, compiled the stats, but didn’t play well. Too often, he was a liability in coverage and didn’t have the athleticism to be the playmaker the team desires.
Vander Esch and Lee were both injured and missed time, again. A broken collarbone limited Vander Esch to just 10 games and Lee was active for only nine contests.
Following a year where the defense ranked next to last against the run, the Cowboys could not let injury-prone players and ineffectiveness ruin another season, so they went about remaking the group. The linebacker position now looks drastically different than it did at the end of last season, which represents step two in the quest to fix the defense.
It remains to be seen whether or not Dallas’ defense actually improves in 2021, but they are going to be much more athletic than they were in 2020. In today’s NFL, where offenses are spreading out defenses and making them defend the entire field, the Cowboys needed more speed and athleticism at LB, and they addressed both this offseason.
The process began in free agency when the Cowboys signed Keanu Neal, a former safety, to play a hybrid LB position with the defense. Neal’s a versatile piece that can help against the run, as well as play a role in coverage.
The overhaul continued in the draft, when the Cowboys selected Micah Parsons in the first round with the No. 12 overall pick and added coverage specialist Jabril Cox in the fourth-round. Both are outstanding athletes who will bring unique skill sets to the defense.
Parsons is a three-down LB who will begin his training at middle linebacker. He has the size and elite skills to be one of the best overall LBs in the league. Parsons can run sideline-to-sideline, and although he needs work in coverage, the team is banking on him becoming the playmaker that the defense has missed in recent seasons.
The rookie out of Penn State will also be a big part of the Cowboy’s pass rush on third downs. Parsons has a knack for getting after the quarterback, and Dallas will be taking advantage of that ability.
Cox might not be ready to start right away, but the Cowboys will be using his coverage skills to help against the pass. At LSU, Cox was one of the best coverage LBs in the country and his athleticism should benefit Dallas’ defense on passing downs.
The Cowboys were gashed in the middle of the field last season as their linebackers didn’t have the athleticism or speed to make plays. Additionally, opposing offenses took advantage of Dallas’ LB unit and their inability to cover in the passing game. Cox and Neal should be a big part in the plans to alleviate those issues.
For the past two seasons, in fact, the Cowboys just didn’t have playmakers at LB. After it appeared that Smith and Vander Esch would lock down the position for the foreseeable future, injuries, the lack of depth, and poor play doomed Dallas at the position.
That should no longer be the case. With Lee recently retired, there’s a young core ready to replace him. The Cowboys now have an answer if Smith continues to disappoint or if Vander Esch doesn’t stay healthy. Parsons, Cox and Neal represent significant depth to pair with last year’s starting duo.
The next step will be seeing how the depth chart shakes out this summer and into the season, but having five strong options - and fail-safes in place if something goes wrong - was a huge part of the offseason for the Cowboys.
The team was wise to identify the need to remake the linebacker position, and Dallas now has a much more athletic group. It’s been an impressive overhaul at LB for the Cowboys and the final step of the plan is for the changes to make for a stronger defense this season.
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