Ever watch one of those movies where the lead character looks up to the heavens with teary eyes and blurts out a heart-wrenching plea for help with a “God, just give me a sign!” request? This ain’t that.
The Dallas Cowboys have served notice that the current group of linebackers is not safe. They shouldn’t be, of course, because for various reasons the combination of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have underperformed over the last two seasons. In their final year under Rod Marinelli and their sole year under the quote-unquote stewardship of Mike Nolan, there has not been elite level play from the group. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is not going for it and in a draft that has seen six-for-six defenders picked, he’s now used high draft capital to present the incumbents with the ultimate amount of competition. The selections of Penn State’s Micah Parsons and LSU’s Jabril Cox say everything to Smith and Vander Esch without saying a word.
It’s on in Oxnard, fam.
My mental image of Dan Quinn talking to the Cowboys’ linebacker room. pic.twitter.com/7YF53Gz8Pf
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) May 1, 2021
Make no mistake about it. With full disclosure I’ll let it be known I was against picking Parsons that early in the draft. I named him by name in my listing of the only way Dallas could screw up their top-10 selection (though they got him at No. 12 after a trade back).
I don’t like spending big on linebackers.
Was against drafting Jaylon Smith.
Was against drafting Leighton Vander Esch.
Was against paying Jaylon Smith.
All proven correct.
I was against using No. 12 on Parsons. We’ll see.
I really love the pick of Jabril Cox. This is the way. 4th round LB.
— KD Drummond (@KDDrummondNFL) May 1, 2021
My disdain for investing important capital (financial or draft) in linebacker doesn’t mean that Parsons isn’t a tremendous prospect. Because of my disdain for picking linebackers early and the other options at more important positions which were expected to be there and were (OL Rashawn Slater), I didn’t want him there, but he certainly has the ability to be a Pro Bowl player based on traits.
Cox however is exactly the type of LB prospect, and exactly the placement in the draft that makes my football heart flutter. The importance of Cox being selected in the same class as Parsons is amped up to 100 under the light of it being Quinn’s first draft.
Not only is Quinn entering that first practice with “his guys” as opposed to players who came from a previous regime, those guys were already on uncertain terms as far as their future.
Vander Esch is in the final year of his rookie deal. Dallas has a decision to make, by Tuesday, on whether or not they are going to exercise his fifth-year option for over $9 million in 2022. While nothing is guaranteed, these two picks seem to be a definitive statement that extension is not coming for the oft-injured player who was named a Pro Bowl alternative as a rookie.
After starting 11 of the 16 games he played as a rookie and totaling 140 tackles, two interceptions and 7 pass deflections, his production and snaps have fallen off. In 19 games over the next two years he has just 132 tackles, no interceptions and just three pass deflections.
Neck surgery in 2019 was followed by a broken collarbone in 2020. Pre-draft injury concerns have carried over to the pro game and the Cowboys should not continue to follow the path of recently-retired Sean Lee in hoping and praying that the next injury doesn’t occur right around the corner.
As for Smith, he’s simply been unable to replicate his 2018 campaign. While his injury concerns seem behind him after his horrific Bowl game injury that basically robbed him of his first two NFL seasons (he played in 2017, but not well at all), the biggest issue is Dallas decided to pay him an extension after just one good season and he hasn’t reached that height since.
Granted, Vander Esch’s injury changed the course of Smith’s season, as he was supposed to be moved to weakside linebacker and had to return to the middle, he’s on notice due to that hefty hit on the salary cap.
A player can’t have the indecision and misdiagnosis he routinely has, as well as effort questions and get paid as much as he does. Smith has the volume stats and he makes impact plays but he is the quintessential example of the stats not matching the overall worthiness of his play.
Both Smith and Vander Esch will be on the field for the Cowboys in 2021. However with Parsons and now Cox nipping at their heels, they are not guaranteed to have as heavy a workload and neither is promised to be in the starting lineup down the stretch of next season.
The youngsters will get the chance to earn their snaps under the new guy in charge and their play could easily lead to one or both of the veterans looking for employment elsewhere in 2022.
That’s a big step for a team where ownership favorites such as Smith may have been able to survive without concern in the past.