If there’s one buzzword that coaches absolutely love to use this time of year, it’s “competition.” Hey coach, how’s your first-round rookie looking? “He’s competing every day, and that’s all we can ask of him.” Wow, thanks… Or how about this one? “We love the additions we made through free agency and the draft, it’s added some great competition to our locker room, and it’s pushing everyone to be better.” Blah, blah, blah. These guys really know how to say something without saying a damn thing, don’t they? In all honesty, most of the competition happens on the back end of the roster, as teams have to decide who to keep and who to cut as they trim the roster to 53 players. Most of these decisions don’t have a major impact on fantasy football, as we already have a good idea who the impact players are. There are always a few legitimate competitions, however, that WILL make a difference for your IDP rosters. Since coaches rarely tell us exactly what their plans are, I’m here to help you read the tea leaves for one of the top defensive battles in the league, the Dallas Cowboys linebackers. Let’s get to it!

Photo via Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News

Out With the Old, In with the New?

The Cowboys’ defense last year was bad (this type of hard-hitting analysis is precisely why they pay me the big bucks). Dak Prescott was on pace for roughly 2 million passing yards and 134 touchdowns before his injury, in large part because America’s defense couldn’t stop anyone, forcing each game to be a shootout. Dallas finished 2020 ranked 28th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed. Little known fact, there are only 32 teams, so #math tells me the Cowboys defense left much to be desired last season. I wasn’t the only one to notice, however. Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones was also disgusted by the defensive performance, and this is a man who puts salt on his McGriddle. 

In all seriousness, changes needed to be made on that side of the ball, and those started with the defensive coordinator. Mike Nolan is out, and former Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn has taken the reins for 2021. Hopes are that the change in leadership will bring the most out of this defense, but ultimately the players have to perform. Among these players is perhaps the most intriguing defensive group in the NFL, the Cowboys linebackers. 

Dan Quinn will be inputting his scheme, and it stands to reason he’ll need players who fit that scheme. Look no further than Keanu Neal, who has played his entire five-year career under the Falcons under Quinn. The former strong safety is making the switch to linebacker for his first season in Big D, and reports say the transition has been seamless. Neal spent a great deal of time playing in the box in Atlanta, and from that standpoint, he’s had experience at linebacker, just without the LB label. Neal missed most of 2018-19 with injuries, but never had fewer than 100 tackles in any of his three healthy seasons. His versatility and coverage ability provide a skill-set that was missing from this group in 2020.

Another key addition to the linebacker room is the #12 overall pick in the 2021 draft, Micah Parsons. While most mock drafts had Dallas selecting a cornerback with their first pick, they watched Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II taken ahead of them and pivoted to the best player available. Parsons was the consensus LB1 in the class due to his unique blend of elite athleticism and instincts which allowed him to be so productive against the run, in coverage, and even rushing the passer at Penn State. The 2019 All-American (Parsons opted out of the 2020 season) has already impressed in camp and in three preseason appearances and has teammates raving about his most noticeable attribute: speed.

Widely regarded as one of the top linebacker prospects in several years, Parsons is pushing to have a three-down role immediately, when paired with Neal, forms a very dynamic and exciting duo.

“Hey wait a second, what about the linebackers they already had? Are they going to just get replaced???” Well, no, not exactly, but stock is definitely down for the incumbents. Statistically speaking, Jaylon Smith had a phenomenal season. His 154 combined tackles were a career-high, and they were good for third in the entire league, making him a top-end LB1 for fantasy. A closer look shows that this had more to do with volume than efficiency, as his 1,083 snaps were also third in the league at the position. Remember, snaps equal stats when it comes to linebackers, and considering the added competition in the LB room, it appears the days of playing every defensive snap could be over for the former Notre Dame standout.

Leighton Vander Esch has battled injuries over the past couple of seasons after a breakout rookie year in 2018. He appeared in 10 games in 2020, notching 60 tackles, but was far from reliable, even in the games he played. Fantasy players didn’t know whether he would be in for 97% of the snaps or 50%. Whether that was an attempt to preserve his health, or perhaps the Cowboys staff didn’t view him as an every down player anymore, he did not live up to expectations on IDP rosters, and I don’t expect much to change in that regard. 

So now that we’re up to speed on the personnel, we’ve come to the real questions: how do these four players fit together for the Cowboys, and who will produce for our fantasy teams? It’s certainly not cut and dry, but reports out of camp are pointing to specific roles for each player, as opposed to a linear depth chart with “starters” and “backups.” It looks as if we will see Parsons, Smith, and LVE in base formation when the defense is expecting a run. In nickel formation, however, we will see much more of Keanu Neal joining Parsons, with Smith and LVE off the field. Of course, Quinn will use different combinations at times, but this is what we have seen in the preseason games.