In baseball, the old saying is you can never have enough pitching. The case can be made in football that you can never have enough linebackers. At least if you’re the Dallas Cowboys. We all know how bad they have looked on defense when Sean Lee, their leader and one of the best linebackers in football, has been hurt and unable to suit up.
Dallas took a flyer on Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith in the early second-round of the 2016 draft after one of the scariest knee injuries we will ever see occurred in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. Some thought Smith would never play football again. But here we are, with the 2018 season fast approaching. Smith and the Cowboys organization are as enthusiastic as we have ever seen them regarding the still healing knee. Some still think Smith will never get back to the level he reached at Notre Dame prior to the injury where he was originally projected as a top 10 pick in 2016, but he has continued to make great strides and progress as a pro. He only seems to be trending upwards and improving his game with Dallas, even playing limited snaps. Many of us still believe he will be a starter for a long time on this defense.
And then with their first-round pick in 2018, Dallas took linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (LVE) out of Boise State. Through the Cowboys scouts, LVE has more Lee like qualities, rather than what Smith does at his best.
Now with a healthy (for now) Lee, a young Smith who is as healthy as he’s been as a pro and now rookie LVE joining the group, they have three explosive linebackers ready to rumble. Though in today’s NFL, it is often difficult to get three linebackers on the field at once with the nickel package basically becoming the new, consensus base defense for the league.
So now it’s time for Rod Marinelli and the defensive staff to get creative.
After the draft, they announced that they plan on moving Smith to strong-side linebacker in 2018. If this move is to happen, it would turn Smith into much more of a pure pass rusher at linebacker than he has been in his career. It would also likely mean Lee would stay at weakside linebacker and LVE would occupy the middle spot. Those two positions are easily the two most important on the Cowboys defense. Yes, Smith’s original role as a key piece at the SAM spot of the linebacking core would end but turning him into a weapon off the edge would further increase his value to this defense.
Sure, it’s be fun too see all three of these guys lurking behind the defensive line and doing their thing against the pass and the run, with some creative blitzes mixed in. Unfortunately, it really is not all that realistic. That’s why converting Smith to more of a pass rusher could bring the defense up to another level. Especially with one of their best pass rushers, David Irving, set to miss the first four games of the season with a suspension.
The move of a prototypical SAM linebacker to the strong-side is not totally uncommon in the league. Especially when we look at the track record of Kris Richard, the Seahawks now former defensive coordinator. He made a similar looking move with Bruce Irving while in Seattle and it worked out pretty well. Richard is bringing all sorts of schemes and ideas from Seattle and applying them to Dallas. He’s already moved Byron Jones from safety back to a full time corner. Jaylon Smith likely could be his next project before training camp.