Tue, 11 May 2021

Spagnola: An A+ For Beefing Up At Linebacker

Dallas Cowboys
04 May 2021, 20:24 GMT+10

Mickey Spagnola

FRISCO, Texas - Draft done. Time to roll.

You know, it's one thing to draft a cornerback in the second round.

It's one thing to draft a candidate to potentially challenge for that ever-elusive backup swing tackle position.

It's one thing to bring in a speed bump of a nose tackle, one who undoubtedly will play as new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says unequivocally, "right over the center."

It's one thing to say your vision for one of the corners drafted late is to play safety, a position the Cowboys just couldn't seem to be in the right place at the right time, no matter their intent, to address any earlier than the sixth round.

But it's entirely 'nuther thing for the Cowboys to hit a two-run homer at the position to me needing the most attention.

Linebacker.

Micah Parsons, the best defensive player in the draft, at No. 12 in the first, the Cowboys trading down and picking up a third third-round selection but still getting the fourth-ranked player on their board.

And if you don't believe that, you might be able to get the same deal one disbelieving reporter received from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones Thursday night that $1,000 will buy you the right to enter the war room for a look of your own.

Jabril Cox, the 10th pick in the fourth round, a three-year starter at FCS national champion North Dakota State who earned the right to become a graduate transfer for a fourth season at LSU.

Nothing less than an A+ beefing up of the linebacker position with versatility.

And look, if not for a couple of picks in the third round, and a character question with quite-talented second-round pick Kelvin Joseph, this would be an even more solid draft for the Cowboys when spending eight of their 11 picks on defensive players, increasing their percentages of hitting on maybe three or four of those guys.

Take the 2000 draft. The Cowboys selected three corners, doing so in the second (their first pick that year), fourth and sixth rounds. They only hit on Mario Edwards in the sixth.

Or take the 2009 draft when the Cowboys used four of the 11 picks on linebackers but struck out swinging. Or 2017, spending seven of their nine picks on defensive players, hitting on just three of them, with only one still here four years later.

You just never know.

But here is what we know now about the Cowboys linebacker situation. For sure they have four guys they can sink their teeth into: Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox - a huge improvement of where we were last week when pointing out it was LVE, Smith and ... who?

And when there was not a couple of defensive linemen worth sinking your first pick into - like defensive tackle types - then what's the next most valuable position needed to stop the run.

Uh, linebacker.

And goodness knows the Cowboys must improve immensely on the stopping the run, and that starts initially with Quinn and just how he schemes his defense and having the type of players to do so.

Giving up 158.8 yards rushing a game once again is just not going to get it. Highly inexcusable. Allowing teams to rush for 2,541 yards, the second most in franchise history, would be inexcusable. So, too, would Cleveland going for 307 and Baltimore 294, and then six other teams for at least 150.

Good gosh.

"You want to have enough different players who are versatile enough to adapt to any offensive scheme," Quinn says of matching up against three-wide or two-tight end sets. "So having guys with different skill sets, that's a big piece to me. Adding guys up front like (Carlos) Watkins and (Brett) Urban, and then adding guys like we did in the draft, we've got the size and speed. Whatever style the team you are playing against, you want to be versatile to say, all right, this is how we're going to match up and get it on."

And if you think about it, with Vander Esch going down in the opener and Sean Lee missing the first half of the season, the Cowboys simply couldn't just "get it on" defensively last year. Confusion and inability to matchup reigned.

But now, with the addition of the versatile Parsons and the mobile Cox, the Cowboys have a better chance.

And know what you're thinking about right now. That because the Cowboys didn't pick up his fifth-year option, they don't think much of Vander Esch. Couldn't be further from the truth. To me, this is more about the salary cap still a major unknown for 2022 when LVE's fifth-year option would cost the Cowboys $9.1 million guaranteed.

Given their druthers, the Cowboys would love to negotiate an extension with Vander Esch. Give him some upfront money, protect themselves with per-game bonuses, just anything creatively to lower what would have been that huge 2022 cap hit.

"We want to keep Leighton around here for the next four or five years," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said of the deadline's non-move on 105.3 The Fan Monday afternoon. "We've just got some, obviously, some unknowns. Not unlike Sean Lee, Leighton had some bad luck with some injuries that we were able to work through with Sean, and, you know, of course not knowing what our cap situation is going to be next year - where the league is going to take the cap, how this is going to work out - we just felt like, unfortunately, we needed to do this.

"We had a visit with his agent (Ron Slavin), and they know our intentions to keep him around."

And they had better, since right now, when healthy, Vander Esch still is the best linebacker on this team. We'll see if Parsons has something to say about that in time.

But at least now the Cowboys have like five capable linebackers, that is if we add veteran free agent Keanu Neal to that bunch since Quinn reinforced the Cowboys intentions to start him off at linebacker, too. That would help not needing to play Jaylon Smith in coverage situations. This also would give the Cowboys an ability in passing situations to possibly play more linebackers, since Parsons could possibly be blitzing ... or not, yet still match up much better against the run in three-receiver sets.

Best part of this: Not predictable with versatile linebackers. Who is coming? Who is covering? Who is spying the quarterback? Who is hanging around to stop the run? And enough to sustain an injury or two.

See what I mean? Just go on with your bad selves at linebacker, for sure.

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