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.
- 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