The Dallas Cowboys will have a whole new look on defense for the upcoming season. When Mike McCarthy was hired, he went about bringing in his own staff, which included Mike Nolan to run the defense.
Nolan’s resume includes using both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts on defense. We won’t know for a few months exactly how Dallas will look defensively, but the Cowboys are getting their ducks in a row at linebacker.
Going into the offseason, the team had a dearth of LBs under contract and the uncertainty of Leighton Vander Esch’s neck issue to further muddy the LB waters. The Cowboys went to work to settle the position. Dallas got the band back together by re-signing Sean Lee, Joe Thomas and Justin March. The trio joined the three other LBs who were currently on the roster, Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Luke Gifford. It’s the same six players who were on the roster in the 2019 season.
If the Cowboys are going to use more 3-4 fronts moving forward, six won’t be enough.
The team could be in agreement on that fact, judging by their pre-draft interviews. Wisconsin LB Zack Baun and Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray are two of the notable interviews that have been made public by the team.
Both would be welcomed additions, but each would fill different roles for the Cowboys. Baun is more of a pass rushing linebacker – a staple in a 3-4 set – while Murray is a more run-and-chase type using his athleticism to fly to the ball.
Dallas could use both types.
If the Cowboys wanted either player, they might have to select them with their first-round pick. It’s doubtful Baun or Murray would be available if they passed on them when they make their first selection at No. 17 overall. However, trading back a few slots and still getting Baun or Murray would make more sense; otherwise they might look to find a LB later in the draft.
Dallas also has free agency as an option to add the LB unit.
If the team is looking into pass rushing linebackers, former Green Bay Packer and McCarthy draft pick Clay Matthews might fit the bill. The cost is always a question, but Matthews had eight sacks in 13 games in 2019, so there is still some gas left in the tank. Matthews will also be 34 when the season begins, but could be a fit for the Cowboys.
Other pass rush options at outside LB include Markus Golden, who had 10 sacks for the New York Giants last season, or Bruce Irvin, who had 8.5 sacks for the Carolina Panthers last year.
If Dallas wants more of an inside presence at LB, they could go the veteran route with Wesley Woodyard, who’s play has declined over the past few seasons, or the team could opt to find a younger veteran, like Darrion Lee. A first-round pick by the New York Jets in 2016, Lee has yet to pan out, but did have some productive years in his first three seasons in the league.
These are just some of the options available for the Cowboys to beef up their LB unit. Right now they don’t have enough depth or quality at the position as they saw a strength from the 2018 season turn into a weakness in 2019.
What the Cowboys do in the draft might give us more insight as to how the team wants to scheme their defense. No matter what the plan is, it must include adding more talent.
Do you think the Cowboys should add more at linebacker or do you think they’re all set at the position and should look elsewhere? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.