The 2020 season brought a lot of things into question for the Dallas Cowboys. They missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year as they were hampered by injuries among key spots.
Many questioned whether head coach Mike McCarthy was the right guy? If Ezekiel Elliott deserved to be paid like a top tier running back? And what the future held for Dak Prescott who suffered a season-ending injury against the New York Giants last October.
Among those list of questions lied serious concerns about the state of the Cowboys’ linebacker core moving forward. Leighton Vander Esch, again, could not stay healthy. And Jaylon Smith appeared to not be living up to the near $70 million contract he signed in August 2019.
Smith’s physical limitations have began to show more often the past few seasons – especially when Vander Esch has been absent from the lineup. Those limitations appear to make it difficult for the once explosive linebacker to change direction, which has led to him being a liability in coverage and misdirection schemes.
With $35 million in guarantees, the Cowboys would get zero cap savings by releasing him, although they could carve out $7.2 million by trading him.
Though many are ready to write the young linebacker off, the team hopes a year under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s system could return Smith to his 2018 form.
That year he finished with 121 tackles and four sacks. In 2019, he finished with 142 tackles and in 2020 he posted a career-high 154.
Though the numbers show improvement, it also symbolizes the large gap Vander Esch has left in his 13 missed games the past two seasons.
The Cowboys declined to pick up LVE’s fifth-year option for the 2022 season and added a pair of highly-touted linebackers in Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox this past draft.
Free agent addition Keanu Neal, who played under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s system in Atlanta, is also reported to take reps at the nickel linebacker position this season.
However, with the log jam at linebacker making it apparent the team wanted to address a problem at the position, Quinn has spoke on how he hasn’t seen that affect Vander Esch’s preparation for this upcoming season.
“Every once and a while you can just see a person that’s on a mission, and I think that’s what I’ve seen from Leighton from the time I arrived,” Quinn said via the team’s website. “You could just feel the energy and intensity that he’s putting into his workouts to change his body, to get as strong as he could. From then on, the questions, in the meetings, you could feel the urgency to go.”
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