The Dallas Cowboys went with defense then added more defense in the NFL Draft making it clear they were not pleased with the unit’s production last season. The transformation started by hiring Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator then continued with free-agent moves, and the Cowboys used nearly all of their draft picks on the same side of the ball.
Dallas using two picks in the first four rounds on linebackers Micah Parsons and Jabrill Cox has some wondering about the job security of the Cowboys starting linebackers. NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal suggests Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch’s days with the Cowboys could be numbered.
“Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Saturday that Keanu Neal, imported from Quinn’s time coaching in Atlanta, will play linebacker in Dallas rather than safety, even after the Cowboys drafted linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round and Jabril Cox in the fourth,” Rosenthal detailed. “There just don’t seem to be enough snaps to go around here. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Leighton Vander Esch or — more likely — Jaylon Smith is available in a trade at some point. Vander Esch’s health is an open question.”
Prior to the draft, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones mentioned both players by name admitting the team could “use defensive help.” Days later, the Cowboys selected Parsons and Cox, ramping up the pressure on their veterans heading into training camp.
“Whether it’s Jaylon, who obviously we have signed, or a guy like Leighton, who we know is going to be coming up for a contract -– you want to have depth there,” Jones told 105.3 the Fan, via CBS Sports. “And as I mentioned earlier, I think we can use defensive help, probably at every level.”
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Smith’s Contract Could Make It Difficult to Find a Trade Partner
The challenge for Smith is his six-year, $68.4 million deal still has five seasons remaining, making it difficult to find a trade partner. Smith was mentioned as a potential cap casualty candidate earlier this offseason, but the Cowboys opted to keep him on the roster. The linebacker has a $7.2 salary in 2021 but it escalates up to $12.3 million by 2025.
Smith has the support of Jones, but the pressure is now on the linebacker group to top their subpar performance in 2020. Back in November, Jones referred to Smith as a “cornerstone” piece for the Cowboys.
“We don’t have a player out there that doesn’t have things that he doesn’t want to improve on and can be better,” Jones said at the time, per DallasCowboys.com. “But, boy, I’m glad we got him. He’s one of our cornerstones and he’ll get better and better and better.”
The Cowboys Hinted at Potentially Not Picking Up Vander Esch’s Fifth-Year Option
Even the Cowboys admitted Vander Esch’s future with the team remains uncertain. Prior to the draft, the team noted they were undecided on whether Vander Esch’s fifth-year option will be picked up.
“Well, anytime you make a decision like that it’s the full body of work,” Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones explained in the team’s pre-draft press conference. “Certainly like Sean [Lee], Leighton has had some unfortunate injury situations. Certainly, we’ll take a look at that and put it all into the mix in terms of where we’re going to be under the salary cap, not only this year but next year, and make a decision that’s in the best interest of our team. Whether we exercise an option or not, it doesn’t mean at all that we’re not interested, if we didn’t, in keeping Leighton around here. Obviously, if we do, that solidifies that he’s here 110% but certainly, we’ll get in a room and go over that and make a decision.”
The Cowboys have until Monday, May 3rd to make a decision on whether they will pick up Vander Esch’s fifth-year option. With Cox and Parsons added to the roster, Vander Esch’s future looks even cloudier, but the Cowboys insist the draft will not impact their decision.
“I don’t think it affects it,” Stephen Jones noted after the draft, per DallasCowboys.com. “We’ll make a decision on Leighton – we’ll make that decision when the time comes. We’ve got some discussions to have on that, period.”