OXNARD, Calif. – In each of the past five seasons, the Dallas Cowboys’ defense has improved in total ranking.
According to defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who’s beginning his 24th year coaching in the NFL, the core of that success is the best group of starting linebackers in the league.
“It’s a young veteran group. That’s the best I can say," Marinelli said. “You've got No. 55 starting his second year, No. 54 in also his second year. This is technically his third, but it's really like his second. Then you've got our veteran in there, Sean Lee. It's hard to say there's a better group in the league.”
Jaylon Smith, No. 54, is coming off a breakout season in 2018. After missing his entire rookie season ue to a devastating knee injury he suffered in college, Smith completed his first full season with the Cowboys, starting all 16 games and both playoff games. He finished second on the unit with 150 tackles, trailing only teammate Leighton Vander Esch, No. 55. With Lee sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Vander Esch stepped up and started 11 of 16 games as a rookie, tallying a club rookie record 176 tackles. His performance earned him the nickname "Wolf Hunter" and a spot in the Pro Bowl. He is the first rookie Cowboys linebacker to receive that honor.
“I can't believe how fast time flies. It’s year two," Vander Esch said. "I know everybody is chomping at the bit to get the pads on and get going with this season. It's going to be fun.”
How does Vander Esch plan on improving in his second season?
"Strength. Getting stronger in my upper body,” he said. “I know that's going to help me so that was the emphasis this offseason.”
Meanwhile, 10-year veteran Sean Lee is looking to contribute after playing in only seven games in 2018. He was initially set to earn $7 million this season in base salary, but agreed to take a pay cut to $3.5 million with another $3.5 million in incentives. With the departure of Damien Wilson in free agency, Lee has found new life at Sam linebacker.
“I think you appreciate every little moment,” Lee said. “You appreciate the locker room, flying out on the charter, the first day of pads and the energy that courses through the locker room. You only get so many of those moments.”