The heart of the Dallas Cowboys defense is the best in the league, according to new rankings released by Pro Football Focus.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were rated PFF’s top linebacker tandem in the NFL — and it wasn’t close. According to the site, the Dallas duo graded out at 84.4 (Smith) and 84.9 (Vander Esch). Their respective grades ranked sixth and fifth among all NFL linebackers last year. The Cowboys were the only team to have two top 10 linebackers.
Here’s what the site said it looks for in a top linebacker:
PFF data scientists Eric Eager and George Chahrouri examined the value of both coverage and the pass rush amid this discussion. It just so happens that modern-day NFL linebackers must possess the ability to impact the game in both of these crucial facets.
Vander Esch made the Pro Bowl after a rookie season where he collected 140 tackles. PFF pegged the “Wolf Hunter” as one of only four linebackers who earned grades north of 80.0 in both run defense and coverage.
Smith did not make the Pro Bowl a year ago, but he certainly was worth an argument. Smith was named PFF’s “Breakout Player of the Year” after a season where he racked up 121 tackles and four sacks. The site pointed to his win rate rushing the passer (27.2%) and reliability as big reasons why he garnered such a high rating. Smith missed just 48 snaps last season.
Unfortunately, Sean Lee has been hampered by injury the last few seasons, but it’d be a huge boon for the Cowboys if the former All-Pro can find some success in his move to strong side outside linebacker this season.
The other linebackers duos on the list were: Seahawks Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright; Panthers Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson; Jets C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson; and Vikings Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.
Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys Get Some Love in MVP Odds
While the analytics are in the Cowboys favor, so are the latest MVP odds released by Westgate SuperBook.
According to the odds, running back Ezekiel Elliott has the best change for a non-quarterback to take home the trophy at 60-1. He has the same odds as Jared Goff and 2015 MVP Cam Newton.
With a workhorse mentality and explosive skillset, Elliott has been the league rushing champ in two of his first three years. He burst onto the scene by going for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie, and did it again last year with 1,434 yards and six touchdowns.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott is 100-1 to take home the honor. Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper and Vander Esch are both 200-1.
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