While the linebacker corps in Dallas may appear to be stocked with talent with starters Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch returning, both enter 2021 with major concerns. Despite posting a career-high in tackles last year (154) and getting his first Pro Bowl bid the year before, Smith’s overall play has suffered the past two seasons.
As for Vander Esch, injuries have plagued his young professional career as he has missed 13 total games over the last two years. It’s even unclear if the Cowboys will elect to pick up his fifth-year option for 2022 this summer.
Beyond the projected starters, the Cowboys lost a key backup to free agency in Joe Thomas, who signed with Houston Texans. And longtime veteran Sean Lee at the age of 34 is currently mulling retirement. While newly-signed safety Keanu Neal figures to play a hybrid linebacker role in 2021, the rest of the depth chart is concerning.
So the position is clearly a focus for the Cowboys entering the 2021 NFL Draft. And they find their man in the late in the fourth round. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Monty Rice racked up 49 combined tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, a sack, two forced fumbles, and recovered a fumble for a defensive touchdown in nine games as a senior in 2020 despite struggling with injuries.
Rice is a high-motor tackling machine with a high ceiling that could be limited due to durability concerns and questionable coverage skills. He appears to be an ideal prospect to develop behind Smith, Vander Esch, and Neal with eyes on potentially earning a starting role in 2022.