Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys have the best young LB duo in the NFL

The Dallas Cowboys have long been known for their offense, but it’s a pair of young linebackers who are stealing the show in Big D.

For years, the Cowboys have relied on Sean Lee to cover up the warts of the defense. Whenever Lee was on the field, the Dallas defense played far above their talent level. Unfortunately, Lee hasn’t been durable throughout his career. It’s the only thing that has held him back from being considered the best linebacker in the game. Whenever he has missed time, the Cowboys’ defense has dropped off significantly.

The Cowboys have known about this problem for a while, but have never been able to fully fix the issue. But in 2016, the Cowboys put together a plan to solve their linebacker issue. In the 2016 draft, the Cowboys selected Jaylon Smith from Notre Dame, knowing full well that he may never get back to the level he was in college.

They were willing to take a chance on a top-five type of talent. They knew he was going to miss all of the 2016 seasons, if not more. But the hope would be that by the time Anthony Hitchens left in free agency, Smith would be able to take over his job.

In 2018, the Cowboys used the 19th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. We can get into a discussion as to if that was the best use of the team’s resources for either selection, but that’s beside the point. The hope for the Cowboys was that they could groom Vander Esch to be Lee’s future replacement, possibly as soon as 2019.

However, the team and Vander Esch didn’t have that luxury. In Week 2, Lee pulled his hamstring and sat out the second half. In Week 3, Lee aggravated that injury and has now missed the last two weeks. He’s expected to miss at least a few more games. Vander Esch has been forced to start the past two weeks, despite limited reps in training camp and preseason due to injuries himself.

So for the past two weeks, Smith and Vander Esch have been the team’s two starting linebackers. And for the first time since Lee has was drafted, the Cowboys have been able to find success without him on the field. Usually, this means the defense would have fallen to pieces, but that hasn’t been the case.

In fact, they may be even a better unit now than they were with Lee on the field. Smith and Vander Esch together is one of the most intriguing linebacker pairings in the NFL. Let’s take a look at the film to see how these two young linebackers played on Sunday night.

We will start with Jaylon Smith. Coming out of Notre Dame, Smith’s game was predicated on speed. He still doesn’t look like he has the same amount of speed he did as a junior for the Fighting Irish, but he’s quite a bigger now. His style of play hasn’t changed, though. He’s a run-and-chase linebacker who can lay the wood when he needs to.

The best play of the game from him (and possibly his career) was on a critical fourth down and goal play for the Houston Texans. Smith and quarterback Deshaun Watson are both racing for the pylon on a game-changing play for both sides. Smith, who is at least 30 pounds heavier than Watson, gets to the corner with ease and makes the tackle on the Texans’ quarterback.

According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Smith reached a top speed of 19.9 MPH.  To put that in perspective, Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara hasn’t reached that number yet this season or last season and he is considered what one of the most dynamic players in the league. Smith was flying. But that wasn’t the only impressive play Smith made in this game. When Smith gets a clean lane at a runner, he’s tough to stop. His burst is back and with his size, his power can jolt runners off their feet.

Like Smith, Leighton Vander Esch’s best skill is his ability to run and make plays in space. Despite his size, he’s not an overly powerful player. He’s at his best when he can fly to the football and make tackles. The play below might be one of the best plays I’ve ever seen from a 255-pound linebacker. Look at how fast he gets downfield to make the tackle on Watson.

That skill set is rare. The NFL is going to smaller, faster linebackers, but there aren’t many defenders in the league that can make that play. He looked like he was shot out of a cannon. That type of speed from your weakside linebacker position is terrifying for offenses. It prevents them from trying runs to the perimeter or quarterback sweeps as Houston tried. This type of player can change your entire defense.

One of the biggest concerns about Vander Esch coming out of the draft was his ability to take on blocks. It was a part of his game that he really struggled with in college.

Now, to his defense, Vander Esch was very inexperienced, even for college football. Sunday was just Vander Esch’s 16th career start in 11-man football. As Vander Esch starts to gain more experience, you are seeing him become more comfortable taking on blocks, even as a weakside linebacker.

If Vander Esch can continue to do this more consistently, he will become one of the best linebackers in the league. He doesn’t look like the prototype weakside linebacker given his size, but his play suggests he could be a star at the position. He just needs seasoning.

The elephant in the room is what will the Cowboys do at linebacker once Sean Lee returns to the lineup? That’s a question I can not begin to answer. However, if the season starts to go off-track and it doesn’t appear Dallas is a real playoff contender, the team should opt to play their two young stars. This Cowboys’ roster has a lot of holes, but linebacker certainly isn’t one of them.

With Smith and Vander Esch on the field at the same time, Dallas has arguably the fastest linebacking corps in the NFL. It also might be one of the biggest with both players weighing in at around 250 pounds. Their ability to run from sideline-to-sideline is going to cause major problems for their opponents. It’s going to change the way teams play football against the Cowboys.

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