How the Cowboys can morph themselves into having a much-improved linebacker position group

The defense of the Dallas Cowboys is getting better. For years the defense was the Achilles heel for this team. As good as they were offensively, there always was a ceiling for how far this team would go because the defense wasn’t good enough.

Times have changed. The Cowboys have improved quite a bit on defense, especially considering the backslide of the 2020 season, known as the Mike Nolan anomaly. Breaking down the last four seasons, the Cowboys’ efficiency versus the pass and the run goes like this:

This graph depicts what we just stated – they’re getting better. The team has emerged in the top 10 in passing yards allowed over the last two seasons. Bookend All-Pros like DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons and having ball-hawking young All-Pro corners like Trevon Diggs and DaRon Bland certainly help.

But as you can see, run defense is a little different. After being one of the worst in the league, they’ve worked themselves to the middle of the road. That’s not terrible, and they’re certainly trending in the right direction, but there are times when it feels like they are helpless defending the run, allowing opposing offenses to drive the ball down the defense’s throat. That’s never good.

The Cowboys are trying to fix that. They used a first-round draft pick on Mazi Smith last year to give them a stronger presence in the middle and have added one of college’s best run-stopping defensive ends in this year’s second-round pick Marshawn Kneeland.

Help in the trenches is extremely valuable, but the Cowboys must improve their linebacker position group. They’ve tried to patch things up with low-cost free agents (Anthony Barr/Keanu Neal) or Day 3 draft investments, but that hasn’t been all that great. Here are a few late-round draft/undrafted darts the Cowboys have thrown at the linebacker position in recent years.

  • 2021 Jabril Cox (4th round)
  • 2022 Damone Clark (5th round)
  • 2022 Devin Harper (6th round)
  • 2022 Markquese Bell (UDFA)

Surprisingly, Clark and Bell held down the fort, logging the most snaps at the linebacker position for the Cowboys last season.

The Cowboys decided to up the ante at linebacker over the last two drafts. First, they selected Texas LB DeMarvion Overshown with their third-round draft pick last year and then took Notre Dame LB Marist Liufau with their third-round draft pick this year. What is interesting about their two most recent draft picks is that they possess similar qualities, but also are very different.

Overshown is a great athlete. His sideline-to sideline range is quite impressive and it was on display during the preseason last year before he suffered a knee injury. He’s a little undersized and looks more like a Jayron Kearse-type of hybrid player, only with much better athleticism. He’s a physical tackler, holds up in coverage, and can be used as a blitzer. Overshown’s traits make him a dynamic piece to the Cowboys linebacker puzzle.

While the athleticism is there, he still needs work on diagnosing plays. If he makes a bad read, he’s in trouble because he doesn’t have the size to shed blockers and he can get washed away. If you get him going in a straight line, he’s very effective.

Then, there is Liufau. He has a high football IQ. Liufau doesn’t have the same level of athleticism as Overshown (although he’s still a solid athlete in his own right), but he has a much better understanding of play concepts and is much more disciplined in sticking to his gaps. He also has a prototypical linebacker build and doesn’t look happy unless he’s hitting someone.

Both players have their strengths. Both are very aggressive players and once they have their minds set on something, they’re hard to stop. At the same time, both can be punished for their over-aggression. If they get too overzealous and take the cheese, they’ll be in trouble.

That is where veteran free agent signee Eric Kendricks comes in. A former player under new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Kendricks is familiar with his system. He’s a smart player who can see what’s coming and does a great job communicating it to the defense before the play starts. His play awareness is sharp. He doesn’t wander aimlessly while the action is happening away from him. Kendricks knows how to get from A to B taking the shortest route and that skill has paid his bills over his nine-year NFL career.

Kendricks wasn’t a wow signing as he doesn’t bring an elite-level skill set to the table, which is why the Cowboys got him so cheap. But his understanding of the position, willingness to be patient, and high-character leadership will be valuable for the Cowboys’ young linebacker group. Translating the knowledge to these young, fresh-legged missiles waiting to be fired is monumental because when these cats figure things out, look out.


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