The next in a series of posts looking at each position group on the Dallas Cowboys roster, and determining just how much of a priority it will be this offseason. (The links to the rest of the series at the bottom)
Position Group – Linebacker
Perhaps the most unpredictable of the Cowboys position groups, the linebacker corps can either be a strength or a weakness. Most of that is at the feet of Sean Lee. When he plays, the linebackers, and the defense as a whole, elevate. When he is injured, which is far too often, there is a huge dropoff. There are also questions around Anthony Hitchens and Jaylon Smith.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Kyle Wilber, Justin March-Lillard, Tre’von Johnson
Sean Lee – It’s the same thing over and over. When he’s healthy he is one of the NFL’s best linebackers. Unfortunately he’s missed a lot of time in his career due to injury, including five games this past season. Lee functions not only as the weak-side linebacker, but as the quarterback of the defense. No one else can approximate his ability to diagnose plays pre-snap and get his fellow defenders lined up in the correct position. He’s a gifted athlete, and he combines that with so much preparation and a preternatural ability to understand what is happening that he seems to be in the offensive huddle on most plays. He’s a three-down linebacker who can stop the run and cover receivers.
Lee is signed through the 2019 season, although the Cowboys could get out of the contract that year with a $3 million dead money hit. If Lee is healthy then he’s a bargain with his $10 million plus cap hit in 2018 and ‘19, but if the injury bug bites again, the Cowboys really need to think about his future. Lee will be 32 during the 2019 season, and that is getting old for a linebacker. Dallas has to be thinking about a replacement down the road.
Jaylon Smith – The fact that he played all 16 games this season was a victory. The second-round pick from 2016 has overcome a brutal knee injury to play in the NFL. Now comes the next step. Smith was serviceable at times in 2017, but other times he was a liability. He was rusty, displaying poor angles on tackles and the inability to read the play, and to know what his fellow linebackers were doing. The Cowboys had to rely too much on Smith last year.
He recently claimed that his drop-foot issue is fading and that his power is returning. We’ll see. If Smith can become more like the linebacker he was at Notre Dame, then the Cowboys will have hit the jackpot with their risky pick in 2016. But if Smith continues to play like 2017, then he’s really just a serviceable rotation piece.
Anthony Hitchens – This is where it gets tricky for the Cowboys. Hitchens is a free agent and given his quality 2017 season, he’s likely to see action in the free agent market. The question is how big of a contract will he be offered, and will he get a shot at a starting position elsewhere. In Dallas, he’s a fantastic, versatile player, but the Cowboys really hope that Jaylon Smith is their future at middle linebacker. He could replace Sean Lee down the road, but does he want to wait for that? Given Lee’s injury history and Smith’s uncertain recovery, the Cowboys desperately need a player like Hitchens. But, will they choose to get someone cheaper in the draft that they could groom for the future?
Damien Wilson – He’s a cheap option for the Cowboys, but how much does he really add to the roster? He’s nominally their starting strong-side linebacker, but the Cowboys are using less and less of a three linebacker formation. He does play special teams, but so far he hasn’t been able to elevate himself above the “just another guy” label.
Kyle Wilber – He’s a free agent, so his future is definitely in doubt. He’s been reduced to a special-teams guy, but he does contribute there, seemingly making one big play a year.
Justin March-Lillard – He is signed through 2018 at a reasonable price, he could be a depth piece with special teams in his future.
Tre’von Johsnon – The Cowboys have Johnson under contract for the next two years. At 22-years-old, they will likely groom him with an emphasis on special teams.
Offseason Priority – High*
As previously mentioned, this position group is tricky. With Anthony Hitchens heading into free agency, Sean Lee’s injury history, and the uncertainty over Jaylon Smith’s full recovery – the Cowboys need to be sure they have adequate depth here. But they don’t want to overspend because Lee and Smith could end up being healthy and dominating the snap totals. It’s a high priority right now, but we gave it an asterisk because if the Cowboys can re-sign Hitchens, then they have some depth and the pressure to do something at the position would lessen. A rotation of Lee, Smith and Hitchens is certainly a quality lineup. At that point they would likely grab a linebacker in the draft to groom for the future, and/or add a veteran free agent who isn’t costly.
But, if Hitchens moves on, the Cowboys need to spend some resources on getting another guy in place that they can trust to start. That could be in the form of an early draft pick, or a more costly free agent than just a depth guy.