If you only paid attention to the headlines surrounding the team, you’d think the only issues facing the Dallas Cowboys would be whether to sign Dak Prescott long-term or how new coach Mike McCarthy will fare. But a football team is more than just its quarterback and coach, and if the Cowboys want to improve on last year’s disappointing 8-8 mark, they’ll try to plug all the holes on the roster.
One area where the team has some depth and quite a bit of potential is at linebacker. That said, they have yet to live up to that not insignificant potential. Here’s what to expect from the Dallas linebacking corps in 2020.
The Dallas Cowboys’ current depth chart at linebacker
Over the past several seasons, linebacker is one position the Cowboys haven’t neglected to address. Let’s take a look at who the Cowboys’ currently have at linebacker as they head into this season based on their ESPN depth chart:
Leighton Vander Esch
The team’s first-round pick with the 19th overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft, Leighton Vander Esch had a big rookie season. He had two interceptions and 102 solo tackles on his way to a Pro Bowl selection.
Jaylon Smith was the Dallas Cowboys’ second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Just last summer, according to Spotrac Dallas resigned him to a six-year, $68.4 million deal. Now Smith can look forward to big expectations that come with such big money.
Entering his tenth season, Sean Lee represents the heart and soul of the Dallas defense. Lee has been a solid presence for Dallas over the years. He hasn’t been able to play a full season, however. He’s yet to play all 16 games — the closest he came was in 2016 when he played (and started) 15.
How the Dallas Cowboys’ linebackers fared in 2019
Last season, Vander Esch played only 9 games due to injury, finishing with only 43 solo tackles. After starting six games his rookie season, he’s started all 16 games in his last two.
Lee managed to play in 13 games — his highest total since 2016. Smith’s performance didn’t lag — he secured a Pro Bowl appearance. For all the question marks the Cowboys have at linebacker, they aren’t lacking for talent.
The question is can they put it all together to become the outstanding unit most think they’re capable of being?
Will 2020 be the year the Cowboys linebackers live up to the hype?
Staying healthy is the name of the game for the Dallas linebackers in 2020. Vander Esch came with the price of a high draft pick while Smith came with a high price tag, period.
They need both of them to stay on the field to be productive. Lee is getting up there in years, so the bulk of the production will have to fall on Smith and Vander Esch. Meanwhile, if Lee can stay healthy, the team can expect him to contribute as well.
The problem is if the linebackers play below expectations. Dallas has sunk a significant percentage of their cap into this particular unit. Vander Esch is the biggest steal of the group, still on his rookie contract, but before long the time will come to pay him too.
The Dallas defense relies on the athleticism of this unit behind their defensive line and is paying quite a bit for that. If the results don’t match the investment, it will throw the entire defense out of whack. The Cowboys have enough salary cap issues on their hands with the talk of Prescott’s possible extension. They don’t need another one.
It all comes down to their ability to stay on the field. If Vander Esch and Smith can put in a whole season — and Lee can play most of the games at the same old reliable level he always does — Dallas can look for big things out of their linebackers.
-All stats courtesy of ProFootball Reference