A shockwave hit on Tuesday as it was announced that the Dallas Cowboys released Jaylon Smith. The news was first reported on Tuesday.

During his time in Dallas, Smith was played in four complete seasons, earning a Pro Bowl selection in 2019.

Unfortunately, his play went downhill in 2020. As a result, he became the front of trade speculations among players who could be on the move. Especially given his expensive contract vs. his output on the field.

The writing on the wall was 3 sequences in the offseason:

  1. Dan Quinn brought in Keanu Neal, signaling their desire for better coverage linebackers.
  2. The selections of both Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in this past draft.
  3. His snap count in the first 4 games of the season, starting with only 16 in the season opener.

Even still, a move was more expected before or after the 2021 season. Considering the defense has been near the top in the league, and we’re only a quarter of the way through the season makes this an eye-opener.

Now that one of the captains is gone, who will be in line to take his snaps? There are a few linebackers, and even some who aren’t, who are perfectly in-position to replace number 9.

Keanu Neal

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As mentioned before, Keanu Neal was brought in by defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. His seamless display from safety to linebacker made him one of the two clear best linebackers on the team. As a result, he was given the majority of snaps among linebackers in the first two games (Parsons played DE entirely in game 2), over both Smit and Leighton Vander Esch.

After missing the last two games being on the Reserve/COVID list, Neal’s ready to resume his usual 70%+ snap count. With Smith no longer on the team, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker rotation will likely be smaller and kept to the core players.

Parsons will still be playing both as a defensive end and inside linebacker, which will factor in when Vander Esch comes on the field. Expect Neal’s play percentage to be near or above 90% for the remainder of the season.

Leighton Vander Esch

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Like Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch’s playing time has been severely reduced. His snap count for the first 4 games looks like this:

Tampa Bay – 14 snaps (22%)

Los Angeles – 37 (52%)

Philadelphia – 44 (81%)

Carolina – 40 (58%)

The timing of this is odd considering the only game LVE has had more snaps than Smith was this past Sunday vs. the Carolina Panthers. Aside from that, Vander Esch has been the de facto LB4 on the roster.

Parsons is continuing to rotate between edge and linebacker, this means those extra snaps fall onto LVE. Pairing him and Neal together is a preferred look in coverage, and a likely reason for why the team made the move.

Jabril Cox

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It will still be a while before Jabril Cox sees an expanded role, but the snaps that Vander Esch will be filling from Smith, will now make Cox the LB4 on the Cowboys.

Cox hasn’t seen much play time on defense, being primarily used as a special teams player. His highest snap count so far is 19, which he did against Carolina. The uptick in snaps from LVE and Cox, and decrease from Smith was a likely foreshadow.

Jabril Cox is on this team due to his coverage ability, which is a similar trait shared with his fellow linebackers ahead of him. The team now has a “prototype” linebacker that they want, and Cox more than fits the bill.

He won’t starter reps this season, barring an injury, but Cox is one of the rookies that fans and analysts alike have been clamoring for and now will be given his chance to do so. Expect his game usage to go from only 15-20% snaps up to around 50% at some point this season.

Jayron Kearse/Donovan Wilson

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Neither are linebackers, but both are in for a fun roles for this secondary.

Jayron Kearse is undoubtedly the Dallas Cowboys biggest surprise player this season, having an enormous effect on the secondary in coverage. He’s gotten more plays as a starter with Donovan Wilson dealing with a groin injury since the Tampa Bay game.

Kearse has been playing at a high level, more than exceeding his $1.13 million deal. However, I don’t expect Kearse’s play to takeaway snaps from Wilson.

Wilson, going back to last season to game one of this year, has been one of the Cowboys best secondary pieces. He’s a hard hitting safety who plays in the box at a very high level. Since the team plays a primarily nickel defense, both safety’s are going to be used together.

In the Cowboys nickel defense, they primarily have 4 down linemen, and 2 linebackers. In the secondary, Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker are your free safety’s, playing single-high. Donovan Wilson man’s the box safety position below him, and Kearse will play the STAR role (hyrbid LB/S) in the slot. For example:

 

They are some of the Dallas Cowboys best defenders and having them both on the field does nothing but help in both the run and pass game. Especially if they can be on the field together.

Kearse has more than earned his playing time, but instead of replacing Wilson, playing more 3-safety sets would give the team it’s true 11 best players on the field.