What happened to the Dallas Cowboys linebacker corps?

Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

How has the Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker corps fallen so quickly?

Only a couple of years ago, the Dallas Cowboys were known for two stellar positional units. A dominant offensive line and one of the most talented and youngest linebacker corps in the NFL. This season, both areas have been weak links for America’s Team.

The offensive line issues really started this offseason with the sudden retirement of All-Pro center Travis Frederick. Early season-ending injuries suffered by both right tackle La’el Collins and left tackle Tyron Smith forced Dallas to start inexperienced players in their place. The biggest evidence of the severe drop off this O-Line has taken is the fact an undrafted rookie named Terence Steele has started every single game for the Cowboys at right tackle.

Unfortunately, the linebacker corps in Dallas has taken a similar downward turn. 2018 Pro Bowler Leighton Vander Esch suffered a neck injury that ended his sophomore season six games early last year.

Proclaiming himself healthy following offseason surgery, Vander Esch would suffer a collarbone injury in the very first game of the season against the Los Angeles Rams. The Wolfhunter would not return to the field until Week Six and has struggled to get back to his previous form.

Jaylon Smith appeared to have his best season in 2018, racking up 121 tackles and 4.0 sacks as a 16-game starter. But the fifth-year linebacker actually earned his first Pro Bowl nomination in 2019 despite it being considered a down year for the former second-rounder.

That subpar play has continued this season for Smith despite the fact he’s currently ranked second in the NFL with 89 total tackles through nine games. Yet, the Cowboys’ defense allows an NFL-high 32.2 points per game to opposing offenses. Also on Smith’s watch, the defense allows a whopping 157.0 rushing yards per contest, second-most in the league.

The introduction of a different coaching staff, a new complex defensive scheme, and a lack of a true offseason program to install it all has certainly taken its toll in Dallas. Yet, plenty of other NFL teams have found ways to win.

Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus named the decline of the Cowboys’ young linebacker duo of Smith and Vander Esch as one of the NFL’s biggest midseason surprises of 2020 so far. Here’s what Linsey had to say about this once up-and-coming defensive combo.

"“Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch looked like a pair of future stars at linebacker for Dallas back in 2018 … Neither has looked all that reminiscent of the players we saw two years ago, though. Smith has earned a 53.4 PFF grade, and Vander Esch comes in a tad higher at 55.3 in another injury-shortened season thus far. Their disappointing play is part of the reason that the Cowboys’ defense has underperformed this year.”"

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The good news for both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch is that the defense has looked much improved over the past two games, despite losing both contests. It appears that this unit could finally be turning a corner with seven games left to be played. And that should offer some hope to a 2-7 Cowboys’ team that’s still has a chance at redemption this season due to being in the worst division in the entire NFL.