Dallas Cowboys free agency primer: The linebackers

In the fourth of a five-part series highlighting the Dallas Cowboys and their pending free agency decisions, today we look at the linebackers.

The 2019 NFL season is now officially over after the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV. For the Dallas Cowboys, it’s been over for over a month now. The lack of a playoff run has given Dallas extra time to strategize how they will proceed into free agency.

Over the last week or so, I’ve been putting together a plan of my own. The offensive skill positions and the trenches were broken down. The quarterback position was as well with news breaking during the Super weekend that was ultra obvious but news nonetheless.

Adam Schefter reported that contract talks are not close between quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys front office. Due to this chasm, the team will use their franchise tag on the 26-year old star. Last year, that tag was almost $25 million. This year, it will likely be between $29-30 million.

That number may actually help the Dallas Cowboys as Prescott will likely earn $35 million per season whenever the long-term deal is agreed upon. Saving $5-6 million could be critical as we are about to embark upon another position where free agency is set to make life more difficult for Dallas.

Over half of the Dallas Cowboys defensive line is free to leave if they so choose. Today, the same can be said about the linebacker position. Five linebackers are set to become free agents with only nine on last season’s roster.

The most notable of these free agents is easily Sean Lee. For the first time in ten seasons, Lee played in all sixteen games. Even though he was not prime Sean Lee, he did register 86 tackles, 55 of which were of the solo variety with one sack. Would Lee do the team a solid and come back for one more season, at or around, the league minimum?

Beyond Lee, Joe Thomas, Malcolm Smith, Justin March, and Ray-Ray Armstrong are also free. Thomas has been a solid, multi-functional player, capable of spot starting when the need arises. Smith was a late addition in the season but could be an intriguing veteran signing for a bargain price.

Regarding the rest of the options available, it might behoove the Dallas Cowboys to take some fliers on previously high-rated talent. Former first-round draft picks Stephone Anthony and Deone Bucannon both played 2019 for the veteran minimum. Neither played remarkably well, but Dallas is mainly shopping for depth at the inside linebacker position so either could be a shrewd pickup.

One much bigger decision looms for this team in 2020 which will clearly direct how the roster will be constructed. Will the Dallas Cowboys start working towards switching to a 3-4 scheme? If so, the outside linebacker spot will become a priority.

Most of the options out there are frankly going to be out of the Dallas Cowboys price range. There are a couple of possibilities that would help the transition to a 3-4 defense, however. Pernell McPhee, Jeremiah Attaochu or Kevin Pierre-Louis would all be low-budget options capable of bridging the gap if the scheme does, in fact, change.

Next: The all-time best defenders to wear the Star

The success of this position rides heavily on the health of incumbent starters Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Both need to improve their play to simulate their 2018 campaigns. Both absolutely must stay healthy. If those two things occur, the Dallas Cowboys will largely be focusing on depth in the free-agent market. If not, this position could quickly slide back to being one of the weakest.