Welcome to the NFC East Positional Power Rankings! Now that the NFL draft is over, we will be breaking down 1 position group per week and power ranking each unit in the division. Last time we covered each teams’ pass rushing units so today we are talking about the linebackers.
If you missed any of the previous articles in our series you can check them out here:
1) Dallas Cowboys
The Depth Chart & 2020 Stats
- Micah Parsons – 1st round pick
- Jaylon Smith – 154 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR
- Leighton Vander Esch – 60 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FF
- Keanu Neal – 1– tackles, 9 TFL, 1 INT, 1 FR
- Jabril Cox – 4th round pick
It is quite possible that no team in the NFL values linebackers the way the Dallas Cowboys do. In 2016 they spent the 34th pick in the draft on Jaylon Smith. Two years later, in 2018, they spent a 1st round pick on Leighton Vander Esch. And then there is this offseason when the team signed Keanu Neal to a 1-year deal worth $5 million to play a hybrid linebacker/box safety role and then followed that up by spending a 1st and 4th round pick on Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox respectively. How the team plans to get all of these players on the field is anyone’s guess.
Jabril Cox was a great selection in the 4th round of the draft and perhaps one of the best value picks of the whole weekend. Widely considered a 2nd round pick, Cox fell all the way to the Cowboys who were more than happy to scoop him up. Cox is one of the better coverage linebackers in the class. He was only targeted 41 times last season at LSU and he had 3 interceptions and 4 pass breakups. He didn’t surrender a TD and was never penalized in coverage all season long.
While the Cox selection made a lot of sense as a value pick, the Micah Parsons selection did not. Parsons is a top athlete at the position but it seemed to be a bit of a panic move for the Cowboys who didn’t anticipate the top 2 corners coming off of the board as early as they did.
The double-dip at linebacker in the draft, especially after signing Neal, may signal a lot about the Cowboys’ feelings towards Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Both Smith and Vander Esch have seen a significant deterioration in their play over the last 2 seasons. For Vander Esch the main issue has been his health. He has failed to remain healthy the last 2 seasons, missing 6 games in 2020 and 7 games in 2019. Even when on the field, he was often battling through injury and just didn’t flash much playmaking ability. The Cowboys declined to pick up his 5th-year option this offseason, meaning that 2021 could be his last season with the team.
Jaylon Smith, a player who only fell out of the first round in the 2016 draft because of injury concerns, has been remarkably healthy since his rookie season, starting every game for 3 consecutive seasons. However, he has regressed majorly to the point of being a complete liability in the middle of the field for the Cowboys, often drawing the ire of Cowboys fans.
Last season Smith recorded a 54.2 PFF grade and Leighton Vander Esch turned in a grade of 50.6. While Parsons is almost guaranteed a starting spot, Cox could see substantial playing time as a rookie if the struggles of Smith and Vander Esch continue.
At the end of the day, this is a very talented group of linebackers that the Cowboys have invested a lot of money and capital into. With an underwhelming pass rush and secondary, the team needs this unit to show up in a big way to remain competitive on Sundays.
2) Washington Football Team
The Depth Chart & 2020 Stats
- Cole Holcomb – 72 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 INT
- Jon Bostic – 118 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PD
- Jamin Davis – 1st round pick
- Casey Toohill – 2 tackles
- David Mayo – 29 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 FF
- Khaleke Hudson – 10 tackles, 3 TFL
The Football Team has remade themselves into a 4-3 team following years in a 3-4 system. Cole Holcomb has been a huge beneficiary of the schematic shift, recording a PFF grade of 72 last season. 2020 may have been the best year of his career, but it was just another step in the right direction after a solid 2019 season.
Unfortunately for the team, Holcomb’s rise seems to be coupled with the fall of Jon Bostic. Sure his tackle numbers are still there, but Bostic’s level of play has fallen off in recent history. PFF awarded Bostic a grade of 52.7 for the 2020 campaign.
The Football Team spent their 1st round pick in this year’s draft on Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis. Davis is very inexperienced, starting only 11 games in his 3-year career for the Wildcats. He has great athletic traits, most notably his explosiveness and length, and he excels in coverage. The Football Team’s linebacker corps will need him to make an impact as a starter in year 1 as they lack many other options. In recent history, rookie linebackers have struggled to step right in and play, but perhaps Davis will be the exception. Regardless of how his rookie year goes, he projects as an NFL starter long-term and, when coupled with the 24-year-old Cole Holcomb, the Football Team has a very favorable long-term outlook at the position.
3) New York Giants
The Depth Chart & 2020 Stats
- Ryan Anderson – 9 tackles, 1 TFL
- Blake Martinez – 151 tackles, 9 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR
- Lorenzo Carter – 15 tackles, 2 TFL
- Oshane Ximines – 5 tackles, 1 TFL
- Devante Downs – 33 tackles, 1 FF, 1 FR
Blake Martinez is a borderline elite player for the Giants at linebacker. He is coming off of a career year in 2020 and has the 3rd most defensive stops in the league in the last 2 years. PFF gave him a grade of 75.9 for the 2020 season.
Behind Martinez the Giants are pretty thin. Lorenzo Carter graded out well last season but didn’t see the field that much. The Giants will probably be looking for him to step into a full-time starting role this season. When looking at the 2020 stats for the projected Giants linebacker depth chart, the lack of production is very evident. Outside of Martinez, not a single player in their 2 deep depth chart had over 35 tackles a year ago.
The Giants spent a 2nd round pick on the rookie Azeez Ojulari, but for the purposes of this series, he was considered with the pass rushers in the last article. He will likely be a pass rush specialist from the OLB position for the Giants in 2021.
4) Philadelphia Eagles
The Depth Chart & 2020 Stats
- Eric Wilson – 122 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 INT, 1 FF, 2 FR
- T.J. Edwards – 70 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF
- Alex Singleton – 120 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR
- Genard Avery – 12 tackles, 2 TFL
- Shaun Bradley – 13 tackles, 2 TFL
- Davion Taylor – 10 tackles
The 2 NFL extremes in the valuation of the linebacker position are both present in the NFC East. As already discussed, the Cowboys may value linebacker more than any other team in the league, while the Eagles place absolutely no value on the position. The team hasn’t selected an off-ball linebacker with a 1st or 2nd round pick since 2012, when they selected Mychal Kendricks with the 46th overall pick in the draft. Before Kendricks, you have to go all the way back to 2001 to find the next linebacker taken in the first 2 rounds by the Eagles.
Last season the Eagles paid their long snapper more than their highest-paid linebacker. It is a position that has been neglected for far too long and it shows up in a major way when you look at the tape. In 2020 opposing QBs had a passer rating of 113.9 when targeting Eagles LBs. After having the worst linebackers in the NFL a year ago, the Eagles made the decision to eschew the position entirely in the draft, opting to draft 4 defensive linemen instead.
However, the Eagles did perform major addition by subtraction to the unit by jettisoning Nate Gerry. They then signed Eric Wilson to a 1-year deal worth $2.75 million. Wilson is coming off of a sub-par year in Minnesota and will look to get back on track in Philadelphia.
Alex Singleton was a tackle machine for the Eagles in 2020 and many fans are high on him as a player. Unfortunately, I believe people are overly optimistic about Singleton’s performance simply because he wasn’t as bad as Nate Gerry. While he is certainly not a total liability, his ceiling appears to be that of a replacement-level starter.
The trio of projected starters for 2021 are Eric Wilson, T.J. Edwards, and Alex Singleton who had PFF grades of 53.5, 66.5, and 58.9 respectively a year ago. Hopefully the new coaching staff will be able to unlock better linebacker play than the previous regime was able to or it could be another long season for the Eagles’ defense.
Positional Power Rankings