Last season, every level of the Dallas Cowboys defense had issues. Depth, injuries, coaching, and so much more played a role in their struggles. An off-season later, there is newfound hope. That hope comes from an array of new faces on the roster as well as a shaken-up coaching staff. The biggest difference in 2021 will come at linebacker.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 22, 2021
Let’s start with the rookie phenom. Parsons has exploded onto the scene in training camp and preseason action, exhibiting his elite athleticism and versatility. His effort is relentless, and that shows on almost every single play. He gives Dallas flexibility at linebacker and EDGE defender because his pass-rushing ability is also sound.
Not to mention, his run defense has looked impressive during camp. The Cowboys’ defense desperately needs to be better in that area this season.
There was no better example of Parson’s competitive nature than his pleading to Dan Quinn to stay in a preseason game.
Rookie LB Micah Parsons on the phone with Cowboys DC Dan Quinn during the HOF Game: “Can I get one more (series)?”
Quinn: “Nope. That’s it for tonight.”
Parsons: “I’m just getting warmed up and adjusted.”
Quinn: “Me too.”
Parsons: “That was not enough.”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 11, 2021
Neal is listed as the starting middle linebacker on the Cowboys’ first depth chart. From the sights and sounds of camp, DC Dan Quinn likes his range from that position, and he is a willing tackler. The former Atlanta Falcon has played mostly as a box safety during his career, so this role makes a lot of sense. He was ultra-productive in 2016 and 2017 and returned closer to form in 2020. Most of his 2018 and 2019 seasons were lost to injury.
At 6’0″ & 210 pounds, he may not have the prototypical size of a middle linebacker to some folks, but the position is trending towards more athletic and coverage-first body types. It also helps that his fellow starting LBs on the roster are a bit bigger if that’s what a game script needs.
Really impressed with Keanu Neal’s tight coverage from the LB spot. Really making things tough on TE and RBs out of the backfield #Cowboys
— Kyle Youmans (@Kyle_Youmans) August 27, 2021
Leighton Vander Esch
LVE is back, and a healthy season from him this year changes this defense a lot. It would make the depth chart at the position much deeper after the additions of Parsons and Neal.
Additionally, he’s playing for a new contract, whether it is from Dallas or not. His play could certainly be elevated from that. He’ll get the starting nod at Will linebacker for the Cowboys as long as he is healthy.
Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith in on the goal line run stop pic.twitter.com/YAImdNrGhU
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) July 31, 2021
Smith has a similar scenario to LVE. He’s not one of the new guys, and he has to improve on his play from a season ago. The biggest difference with Smith this season compared to last season? He won’t be relied upon as constantly because of the strength of the rest of the position.
Smith can play a rotational role, and that may bring the Cowboys the most value. it helps to keep him fresh, rather than last season when he was on the field constantly and led the team in tackles.
Asked by @rjchoppy about the linebacker depth chart, Jerry Jones said “Neal, Parsons, Vander Esch Smith.”
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) August 31, 2021
Another rookie will have a role on the defense this season as well. Cox provides great athletic upside as depth in the case of injury. He’s listed as the third-string MLB behind Neal and Smith currently, but he could get reps especially on early downs after flashing consistently on run plays during camp.
Cox also played really well in the preseason. I won’t be surprised if he plays a bigger part in the linebacker room than Jaylon Smith by season’s end.
Cowboys LB preseason grades so far via PFF:
Keanu Neal 95.1
Micah Parsons 91.0
Jabril Cox 80.1
Leighton Vander Esch 75.4
Anthony Hines III 66.1
Jaylon Smith 60.8
Luke Gifford 42.6
— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) August 24, 2021
The breakdown at linebacker will be a very interesting storyline to watch throughout the year for the Cowboys. There should be a lot more confidence in the position this season.
Featured Image via USA TODAY-Sports