Cowboys 2017 LB’s – Depth, Rotations & Snaps

Sean Lee
This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series 2017 Cowboys Depth, Rotations & Snaps

In this series we break down the potential Dallas Cowboys depth chart, rotations and snap counts for the 2017 season.

It’s the modern NFL. Free agency is here to stay and organizations have to deal with moving parts each season. There is more to building a team each year than just finding the best 11 starters for each side of the ball. In this era of specialization and pass-happy offenses a “starter” is a fluid term to say the least. Teams employing three and four receiver sets have to be countered with defenses that echo that alignment. Ultimately it comes down to not only your starters, but your positional depth and/or the snap counts players get. It’s not getting the best 53 players to put a pen on a contract. It’s getting the right 53.

Ed Note: Click here for the latest Dallas Cowboys Depth Chart. It’s interactive and exportable.

As of today rookies are rookies and have yet to earn stars on their helmets. However these players were obtained for a reason and our lineups reflects that. Today we’re going to look at the potential 2017 Cowboys linebacker rotations.

Linebacker Base Alignment

  • WLB – Sean Lee
  • MLB – Anthony Hitchens/Jaylon Smith
  • SLB – Damien Wilson

Nothing is set in stone, except of course, when it is. Sean Lee will be starting on the week side. Not going to spend a ton of time talking about him. With Lee the Cowboys have one of the best linebackers in the league (when healthy). In Marinelli’s D the WLB is a focal point who has excellent flow lanes to get to the ball. He does. Passing game? Check. Sean Lee is a stud.

Talk about Jaylon Smith all you want (we will), but Anthony Hitchens is the incumbent and in his fourth year is looking quite comfortable in the middle. More than a JAG and less than a stud, Hitchens is a glue guy that makes the rotation better. An excellent short yardage option Hitchens isn’t so much a weak point as Jaylon Smith is an upgrade. It’s possible Smith takes the job for Week 1. More likely the torch is passed sometime during the week six bye.

Damien Wilson most likely would have been the starter last season if not for a freak paint ball eye injury that caused him to miss almost the entire training camp. Having wheels that give him range with some serious thump, Wilson is the man this year. He should start on the strong side in the base alignment and will also see the field on certain passing downs. Even as a starter he will still be a core special teams guy. This kid is a football player and Cowboys Nation is really going to enjoy him this season.

Linebacker Passing Alignment

  • WLB – Sean Lee
  • MLB – Jaylon Smith/Damien Wilson

This is the alignment that will see the majority of snaps on the field. Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith (even at 80-90%) is a very nice upgrade over last season. I love Anthony Hitchens on the field. But flash back to the Lions playoff game and Hitchens body exploding like a geek trying to make a cut in flag football as he chased down the receiver and somehow didn’t get called for pass interference. So ya, Smith/Wilson will be an upgrade.

Let’s start with Wilson. The kid is for real. He is fast, can cover, has instincts and a zeal for the game. If Lee went down it’s a toss up at this point as to which player would fill in. Top of the list is Damien Wilson. That says a lot. But even early in the season the team is looking to put Jaylon Smith on the field paired with Sean Lee and come on …. can  you blame them?

Not going to get dragged down here in regards to Jaylon’s injury recovery or his draft position. This is not a piece about the value of the pick. This is about which talents are going to do what on game day, not about how they got here. Jaylon Smith, even at less than 100% is a serious upgrade over any other option on the team. He’s that good. He’s that instinctual. He’s that damn sexy on the field.

The injury didn’t rob Smith of his incredible instincts. Remember this guy wasn’t just an incredible athlete. Jaylon has incredible football instincts and those ALWAYS translate well to the NFL. He can cover, he can blitz, he has range, he has a huge catch radius and (by all reports) a nasty attitude on game day. On passing downs the team just got a WHOLE lot better.

Linebacker Rotation

  • WLB – Sean Lee/Anthony Hitchens/Damien Wilson
  • MLB – Anthony Hitchens/Jaylon Smith
  • SLB – Damien Wilson/Mark Nzeocha/Kyle Wilber

The Cowboys have been looking to upgrade their linebacking corps for years and at this point with Wilson (and Nzeocha) maturing the unit is in a very good place. Throw in the multi-talented Kyle Wilber and the Dallas Cowboys have a solid unit. Not the deepest but certainly talented enough to get the job done on game day.

The bad news is, much like the DB’s behind them, the Cowboys linebacking corps will only be as good as the defensive line in front of them. The good news is the Dallas DL is looking better than it has in years. This is critical for the success of this crew.

Bottom line, the group stays healthy they are a solid crew and one of the best groups the team has has  had manning the position in years. The duo of Lee and Jaylon could arguably be a top ten unit for the team this season. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s been a long time.

Linebackers On The Bubble

  • LB – Kyle Wilber

Stud on special teams. Stud run defender. Able to put his hand down on the line in a pinch. I also understand he makes a mean espresso. Wilber has never fulfilled the promise he was drafted for but as the team shifted from a 3-4 to a 4-3 he adapted. Wilber is a football player. He loves the game and is not too expensive. That being said if a talented guy steps up Wilber is the man who is at the bottom of the rotation. Not the best place to be.

Linebacker Dark Horses

  • LB – John Lotulelei
  • MLB – Zach Wood

As he does every offseason Long snapper L.P. LaDouceur will have to fight off competition for his job. Zach Wood is (again) the man tabbed for the deed. The team isn’t up against the cap and has no motive other than performance to make the switch. Look for L.P. to man the job again this season. You don’t mess with perfection.

LB John Lotulelei is 5’11” and carries 235 lbs of pure football player on his frame. The former UNLV product entered the league as an UDFA with Seattle in 2013. He is a player who fits the RKOG mold. Tough, hard-nosed, great motor and loves the game. It takes many a player a year or so to get the NFL game down. Lotulelei is at that perfect time playing in a defense that is perfectly suited to his skill set. Keep you eye on this kid. I know Kyle Wilber will.

We will move back to the offensive side of the ball next. Til then.

What say you Sports Nation?

Another Left Coast Sports Post: on Twitter – Steven Van Over

Early 53 Man Roster Prediction – Pre-Training Camp

We are just a few days removed from the 2017 NFL Draft and the Cowboys will have plenty of new faces around The Star when OTA’s and Training Camp roll around. When you look at all the guys the Cowboys lost in Free- Agency then the players they brought in in Free Agency, all the guys the Cowboys drafted, and all the Undrafted Free-Agents the Cowboys signed after the draft this 53-Man roster will look a lot different than it did this time last year.

  1. QB – Dak Prescott
  2. QB – Kellen Moore
  3. QB – Cooper Rush
  4. RB – Ezekiel Elliott
  5. RB – Darren McFadden
  6. RB – Alfred Morris
  7. WR – Dez Bryant
  8. WR- Terrance Williams
  9. WR – Cole Beasley
  10. WR – Ryan Switzer
  11. WR – Brice Butler
  12. WR – Noah Brown
  13. TE – Jason Witten
  14. TE – Geoff Swaim
  15. TE – Rico Gathers
  16. OT – Tyron Smith
  17. OT – Emmett Cleary
  18. OG – Zack Martin
  19. OG – La’el Collins
  20. OC – Travis Fredrick
  21. OG – Jonathan Cooper
  22. OT – Chaz Green
  23. OT – Byron Bell
  24. FB – Keith Smith
  25. DL – David Irving
  26. DL – Tyrone Crawford
  27. DE – Charles Tapper
  28. DT – Cedric Thornton
  29. DT – Stephen Paea
  30. DT – Maliek Collins
  31. DT – Joey Ivie
  32. DE – Demarcus Lawrence
  33. DE – Taco Charlton
  34. DE – Benson Mayowa
  35. LB – Damien Wilson
  36. LB – Kyle Wilber
  37. LB – Jaylon Smith
  38. LB – Anthony Hitchens
  39. LB – Sean Lee
  40. LB – Mark Nzeocha
  41. S – Byron Jones
  42. S – Xavier Woods
  43. S – Jeff Heath
  44. S – Kavon Fraizer
  45. CB – Anthony Brown
  46. CB – Orlando Scandrick
  47. CB – Chidobe Awuzie
  48. CB – Jourdan Lewis
  49. CB – Nolan Carroll
  50. CB – Marquez White
  51. K – Dan Bailey
  52. P – Chris Jones
  53. LS – L.P. Ladouceur

The Draft Picks:

 Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Ryan Switzer, and Xavier Woods will all be walk in contributors right away and I wouldn’t rule out all of the defensive players being starters or battling for a starting position right away. Charlton is likely the starting Right Defensive End, Chidobe Awuzie may be the starting Nickle Corner and play the boundary as well, and Jourdan Lewis will see a large workload right away in the Nickle and on the outside. Xavier Woods has competition but has the potential to let Byron Jones slide into the Strong Safety role and really allow him to play in coverage on tight ends and chase the football closer to the line of scrimmage. Ryan Switzer the Cowboys 4th round pick will unseat  Lucky Whitehead as the teams returner and I can see him having a big role on offense as a rookie.

In addition to these five guys I currently have Joey Ivie, Noah Brown, and Marquez White making the 53 man roster. Ivie is a penetrating defensive tackle that made more plays on film than you would expect from a 7th round pick. Ivie won’t be the most athletic guy in the meeting rooms but has a high  motor and uses his hands and arms to win with swims, swats, and bull rushes. Ivie is actually one of my favorite players the Cowboys drafted after diving in to more of his film. Noah Brown is a high ceiling receiver that really shouldn’t have been available in the 7th round. Brown is a big boy at 6’2 222lbs and style of play is a lot like Dez Bryant. Brown isn’t going to out run you and isn’t the most crisp route runner but he his a red zone nightmare with his physical style of play and blocks extremely well for a receiver. Marquez White will be in a training camp battle for the 6th Cornerback spot on the roster with Leon McFadden. White does not have the ideal size or athletic ability but has very good instincts and has an eye for the football. White is more so of a project than anything but has more than enough redeeming traits and is competitive enough to win that 6th Cornerback job in Training Camp.

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 The Free Agents:

Nolan Carroll, Damontre Moore, Byron Bell and Stephen Paea were the big name Free Agents that were brought in to bolster this Cowboys roster. Nolan Carroll will likely be a day one starting Corner but has a lot of competition behind him that will push him early. Damontre Moore is another guy who was brought in that isn’t guaranteed a roster spot. Moore has a lot of potential and has shown inconsistent flashes throughout his NFL career. If he does happen to put it all together Moore may be in the running for a roster spot, if not I have a hard time seeing him make the roster in a already crowded defensive line room. Byron Bell and Stephen Paea will likely be in Training Camp battles to win a starting spot. Bell will be looking to win the starting Right Tackle spot from Chaz Green and Stephen Paea and Cedric Thornton will slug it out to win the starting One-Technique Defensive Tackle job. None of the Free Agents brought in are game changing type of players but a few of them will win starting roles and a few of them will provide quality depth at their positions.

The Undrafted:

I see one guy who sticks out to me in this Undrafted Free Agent Class that I could see making a case for the 53 Man Roster. That guy is Quarterback Cooper Rush out of Central Michigan. Rush has a lot of developing to do but I could see him being a very good back up Quarterback in the NFL. Rush lacks athletic ability and arm strength to be anything more than a backup in the NFL but does make up for that by being very smart on the field with reading defenses and making good decisions. The Cowboys currently only have Dak Prescott and Kellen Moore as their Quarterbacks on the roster so adding a third guy is something I think they will look to do. Rush is young and has traits in his game that leads me to believe he could win that job.

The Summary:

When you look at the additions the Cowboys made in this off season you notice a completely rebuilt secondary. Time will tell whether they are improved from last years group but in my mind that position upgraded the talent level tremendously between bringing in Nolan Carroll via Free Agency and spending almost half of their draft picks on Defensive Backs. The Defensive Line in my opinion is still average at best. We still have yet to see what Charles Tapper, Damontre Moore, or Taco Charlton can add to the pass rush but I don’t see it being game changing. To me this Defensive Line will continue to be stout against the run and struggle to pressure opposing QB’s. Time will tell, and with Training Camp and OTA’s right around the corner we will find out sooner rather than later. Either way it looks to be very exciting time for Cowboys Nation as the youth movement has officially taken over.

Got a Lot to Say From RVA – Follow me on Twitter- @connorx147

Looking At Dallas Past Tells Cowboys Future

Cowboy Chilling

The bane of a classical education. You are taught early the reason we study history is so we can understand our decisions from the past in order to make better ones in the future. For as human beings, we are doomed to repeat ourselves. This tool can also be used as a predictor for behavior. Here we are going to look at the Cowboys recent past in order to get a better feel for what types of pre-draft moves may still be coming out of the confines of the Star in Frisco.

So far this offseason the Dallas Cowboys have been …. deliberate. This new-norm has recent roots and can be directly correlated to improved regular season performance. In the not so distant past the blog-o-sphere would be ablaze right about now with the latest big Free Agency signing and now (because of the signing) the Cowboys are serious contenders for next season’s Super Bowl. Jerry Jones would be at his carnival-barker best whipping the media into an off-season frenzy and have the masses thoroughly convinced the recent signing and consequent over-payment of suspect talent was the missing ingredient from the previous seasons failure. I can get one time, but Jerry was able to do this groundhog day reboot for 20 years. Say what you will about Jerry the GM, Jerry the owner is sick-slick at what he does.

But that behavior is sooooo 2010.

So far this season Jason Garrett has (again) had the Cowboys taking a deliberate approach before the draft making sensible signings of second-wave, free agency players to short term contracts. If at all possible the team will sign “known” quantities, i.e. their own players or players someone on the club has personal experience with. Seems there are less surprises that way. And with the league being (very much) a cap driven one NOT making errors in free agency is critical to a clubs competitive chances. Ergo Garrett approaches March/April with a keen eye towards the draft and getting the team as flush as possible across the boards so as to not be totally driven by need come draft day.

As we see, so far this season the new Cowboys measured approach is in full bloom. Below is a table from the NFL transactions list that details the Cowboys official signings since the beginning of the month for 2017.

Dallas Cowboys 2017 Pre-Draft Free Agent Signings

3/20 Kellen Moore Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/16 Darren McFadden Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
Jonathan Cooper Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/14 Stephen Paea Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
Damontre Moore Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
Nolan Carroll Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/11 Terrance Williams Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/24 Byron Bell Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signings).

Unlike the NFL Draft, free agency is all about need. QB Moore fills a critical need with Josh McCown choosing the Jets. RB McFadden is the preferred RB2 over Alfred Morris and Cooper is the fail-safe for the offensive line that could end up starting at LG. DT Paea got started in the league under Rod Marinelli and should be a solid rotational addition. They have been trying to sign CB Nolan Carroll for years. Terrance Williams may not get the fans love, but he is a solid WR2 who excels in the run game. That’s kind of important to the Cowboys scheme. Bell is (of course) insurance for the probable retirement of Doug Free.

The Cowboys haven’t had many free agents come though The Star this offseason. By waiting till the first-wave of players have signed the team enjoys a more receptive negotiation and the process is optimized. It’s a solid approach that has produced measurable results. However it’s still early in the process and weeks before the draft. What other moves might the team make before now and then? Let’s look back at the previous offseason to try and get a feel for what other moves the Cowboys may make before the NFL Draft, this season.

Dallas Cowboys 2016 Pre-Draft Free Agent Signings

4/28 Ronald Leary Asked to Re-Sign (asked to re-sign).
4/13 Jeff Heath No Offer Sheet Executed (no offer sheet executed).
4/5 Jack Crawford Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/31 Matt Wile Free Agent Signing (free agent signing).
3/30 Joe Looney Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/24 Benson Mayowa Acquired via First Refusal (acquired via first refusal).
3/22 Alfred Morris Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/18 Lance Dunbar Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/15 Rolando McClain Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/14 James Hanna Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/12 Morris Claiborne Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/11 Kyle Wilber Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
Cedric Thornton Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).
3/10 Josh Thomas Unrestricted Free Agent Signing (unrestricted free agent signing).

Not many. That’s the quick answer to the question in regards to future free agent signings the team may make this offseason. Last year the front office signed OL Joe Looney at this juncture of the offseason to solidify their rotation for that unit. After that the team spent the rest of April getting their own free agents (restricted and otherwise) to put pen to paper. Boring, effective.

In 2016 by the end of March the team was basically done in free agency and in 2017, you can expect more of the same. Cowboys Nation may pine to hear about a big signing before the NFL Draft, however my old history professor would be proud. Instead of blindly guessing we can look back and read the tea leaves. Regardless of perceived needs, the Cowboys are pretty much done in free agency for 2017. The players on the team now are your 2017 Dallas Cowboys. The next influx of talent for the organization will be through the draft and if history serves (it does) this is a good thing.

It’s going to be mighty crowded on the defensive side of the roster pretty soon.

Ed Note: Click here for the latest Dallas Cowboys Depth Chart

What say you Sports Nation?

Another Left Coast Sports Post: on Twitter – Steven Van Over