NEW LOOK DEFENSE: COWBOYS LINEBACKING CORE OFFERS POSITIONAL VERSATILITY
By Thomas Valentine
With Dan Quinn replacing Mike Nolan as Defensvie Coordinator in Dallas this offseason, Thomas Valentine looks at how the Cowboy’s draft haul – in particular two additions at linebacker – should help reshape an underperforming unit ahead of the 2021 season:
The Dallas Cowboys approached the 2020 NFL season with renewed optimism. They had a new head coach for the first time in 10 years in former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and the roster seemed poised to contend for a Super Bowl. Like most teams, the Cowboys weren’t without their flaws, but a weak NFC East and an updated playoff format presented as good of an opportunity as any for a potential run.
Instead, the Cowboys were an unruly disaster. They lost Dak Prescott to a devastating leg injury in Week 5 and proceeded to close out the season 4-8, finishing with an overall record of 6-10. The offense sputtered without Prescott and finished the season 24th in offensive DVOA, but it was often the defense that sold the Cowboys down the river.
The defense gave up 29.6 points per game in 2020, the fifth-most in the NFL, and had eight separate games where teams scored more than 30 points. The offseason goal was clear; the Cowboys had to get better on the defensive side of the ball.
On paper, it looks as if they have. The Cowboys drafted linebacker Micah Parsons out of Penn State with the 12th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft before drafting another linebacker in the fourth round, LSU’s Jabril Cox. They also picked up former Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal in free agency with every intention of playing him at linebacker.
While the Neal transition might initially confuse some, it makes perfect sense. Three-down linebackers have long been a dying breed in the NFL and the lines have become blurred between linebackers and defensive backs. Defensive schemes now require more versatile athletes and the traditional linebacker just doesn’t meet that criterion. Neal is agile, strong against the run, and equally serviceable in coverage.
Along with the current linebacker duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys now have plenty of options at the second level and that gives new defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, a lot of freedom to utilise the versatility that each player brings.
Quinn has traditionally used a 4-3 defensive front with a heavy emphasis on Cover 3. However, he mentioned during the draft process that there was a possibility of implementing some 3-4 front elements into the system. A big reason for that could now be down to the talent the Cowboys have at linebacker.
New Scheme, New Faces
Drafting Micah Parsons gave the Cowboys a linebacker who can pretty much do it all. He was a five-star recruit at defensive end coming out of high school before transitioning to an off-ball linebacker at Penn State. Physically, Parsons is the work of the Gods, crafted from marble and sent down to earth to wreak havoc on NFL offenses. 6-foot-3 and 245lbs with insane athleticism, Parsons has the potential to become a do-it-all linebacker. His raw power, speed, and a motor that just won’t quit already give him an unfair advantage. Once that marble becomes polished, he’ll be one of the NFL’s very best.
While the Cowboys are more likely to use Parsons as a weak-side linebacker, they could deploy him as an edge defender in their 3-4 system and let him work as a stand-up pass rusher. They could also use Smith in the same way. After all, Smith has shown he has the chops as a blitzer in previous seasons. Of course, he’s better deployed as an off-ball linebacker, but if the Cowboys want their best players on the field, it’s certainly an option. One would consider Smith their best defensive asset outside of Demarcus Lawrence, even after he struggled in 2020. Keeping him on the field is pertinent to the team’s success.
The Cowboys were a blitz-shy team in 2020. According to Pro Football Reference, they only blitzed on 22.8 percent of their defensive possessions. They’ll likely up that percentage in 2021, even if Dan Quinn isn’t a heavy-blitz guy historically. The current crop of players gives the Cowboys that trinket, though.
Parsons is one of the best blitzing linebackers coming out of college in a long time, Smith and Vander Esch both have the closing speed and instinctive nature that’s necessary to attack the gaps, and even Neal has that in his locker. The Cowboys could even opt to use him as a blitzer out of the slot or as a dimebacker in other packages. The options are endless.
Their other recent draftee, Jabril Cox, offers more of the modern linebacking approach required to be successful in the NFL. He’s an explosive athlete and has shown the desired attributes to be a playmaker in coverage against tight ends. Like Neal, he could also line up in the slot on a rare occasion.
And then there’s Vander Esch. An immensely talented linebacker who can tackle in the open field and play between the tackles, but injuries have been seriously halted his progression. The Cowboys declined his fifth-year option shortly after the draft, and while that doesn’t rule out the former Boise St. standout staying with the team long-term, it surely reduces his chances.
For now, and at least until the end of the season unless the Cowboys figure him to be a trade asset, Vander Esch is on the roster and will contribute as the Mike linebacker — a role he took on last season after two seasons as a Will.
Individually, all five defenders offer a unique skill set at the second level. Collectively, they’re a dangerous weapon. From Parsons’ twitchiness and athletic superiority to Vander Esch’s tough tackling, Quinn has the pieces at linebacker that could really help the Cowboys defense creep back to league average in 2021. If he can find the way to utilise their individual talents as part of a greater good, the Cowboys have an even better chance of making the playoffs for the first time since 2018.