What Comes Next? The LB corp of the Cowboys is in terrible shape.
FRISCO, Texas — The defense of the Dallas Cowboys demonstrated in 2023 that linebackers are important players. Despite Damone Clark, some of the run defense problems could be attributed to the LBs’ lack of size, and Leighton Vander Esch’s potentially career-ending injury only made things worse right away.
The Cowboys will probably reevaluate their linebacker strategy now that Mike Zimmer has taken Dan Quinn’s place as defensive coordinator in Washington with the Commanders.
Given how important linebackers have traditionally been to Zimmer’s defenses in the past, it seems inevitable that they will.
And from my perspective, that would be very welcome news.
Look below at where things are at the moment and where they should be in a short while.
Past: If I didn’t kick off the conversation about former Cowboys linebackers without bringing up DeMarcus Ware and Chuck Howley, the most recent two Dallas legends to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Indeed, Ware functioned primarily as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme, making him an exceptional edge rusher among his contemporaries.
For whatever reason, Howley is frequently disregarded. This season, he was finally recognized as a Hall of Famer, but his contributions to the Cowboys on the field deserve many, many roses. Throughout their careers with the Cowboys, players like Howley, Lee Roy Jordan, and Thomas Henderson set the standard that others aimed to meet.
Even though some of them did not achieve their full potential for different reasons (e.g., Eugene Lockhart was assigned to try to pull the Cowboys out of the worst of Tom Landry’s last years in Dallas), they should still be recognized as the position’s founding fathers.
Ken Norton, Jr. and the dynamic team of Dat Nguyen and Dexter Coakley are among the names that spring to mind when discussing the players who preceded Sean Lee, whose career could have earned him a spot in the Ring of Honor or the Hall of Fame had it not been cut short by injury.
Is the current generation of linebackers able to compete with the greatness that came before them?
Present: It’s true that I mentioned Micah Parsons in the article that came before this one along with the EDGE rushers, but he’s still listed as an off-ball linebacker who occasionally plays that exact position. He continues to lead two units as a result, demonstrating how unique he is and can be.
Putting Parsons aside, Dallas’ linebacker position leaves a lot to be desired. Although Damone Clark showed some improvement in Year 2, and Year 3 should see more consistency, he is still a young player who would benefit from playing next to a seasoned veteran linebacker. Leighton Vander Esch was supposed to be that person, but it’s possible that the former Pro Bowler has played his final football snap. That will be found out this offseason, as Vander Esch sustained a neck injury that sent him to injured reserve in 2023.
It makes no difference what needs to happen moving forward whether Vander Esch comes back or not, but more on that in a moment.
The signing of Rashaan Evans was expected to heal the wounds, but it didn’t. Vander Esch was a green dot on the field, a play communicator who mentored real-time adaptations. After the preseason, Evans was released with minimal effect, and DeMarvion Overshown was not going to come out of the woodwork to try and salvage the day—after all, the rookie fourth-round pick had become a redshirt in his first year due to an ACL tear.
The majority of Malik Jefferson and Buddy Johnson’s impact came through special teams, and although Johnson has signed a futures contract, Jefferson is a free agent at this time. Both players were activated from the practice squad a maximum of times in an attempt to assist.
Enter Markquese Bell, an NFL sophomore who had a career season despite Dan Quinn moving him from safety to linebacker to fill the void left by an injured Overshown. Bell also struggled with size against bigger running backs and trying to break free from offensive linemen to affect run defense, among other things.
Which brings us full circle to my initial point: there are no explosive, prototypical linebackers on the roster other than Clark (and Parsons, occasionally).
Future: As the team works on the position moving forward, they should concentrate on that. It’s exciting to say the least that Overshown is coming back, but let’s keep our optimism grounded.
It’s true that it takes time to heal from an ACL tear, and this former Longhorn hasn’t played a single regular season snap in the NFL yet, so he’ll be facing obstacles in addition to the learning curve associated with the position when it comes to his recovery.Give him a break on this one.
And will LVE make a comeback in 2024?
Even if he does suit up again, his obvious durability concern with his neck—and his NFL future overall—will now be the focus of every play. Only he knows this for sure.
Given that as a known variable, an allegedly “all-in” team would be best served by replacing him through free agency rather than through the tertiary waves. When things start in mid-March, this is a position that calls for a huge splash in the first wave, and there are a few names that come to mind (I’ll list them in the next series, so stay tuned).
Considering the offensive line needs priority picks this offseason and the first portion of my plan was executed well, I believe that revisiting the position in the 2024 NFL Draft is also necessary, though maybe not with one of the first two picks.
Cowboys, get your hands dirty and improve the linebacker corps.