FRISCO — Competition has a funny meaning in the NFL.
It could translate to a player becoming exposed and no longer being worthy of a roster spot. It could mean a player’s strong performance commands a roster spot. And it could tell you how an organization feels about a player or group of them.
During the NFL draft, the Cowboys selected two linebackers days after declining the fifth-year option on former first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, pushing him into a contract year.
Months before, the Cowboys signed a hybrid safety/linebacker.
If you don’t know what the Cowboys are doing at linebacker, drafting Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, declining Vander Esch’s option and signing Keanu Neal in free agency was meant to be a statement.
It was not so much a statement to a fan base upset at the position, but to the players themselves that their 2020 performances were not up to standard.
The Cowboys’ leading tackler last season was Jaylon Smith (a career-high 154), and he’s become the poster child for what’s wrong with the defense. It’s unfair because Smith does make plays, but he also doesn’t make others. Same with Vander Esch. It’s impossible for a player to make a play on every snap, but it seems the fan base is requiring that for some reason.
Of course, Vander Esch’s health problems raised questions about his future, and the Cowboys made note of that by not securing his services beyond 2021.
“I think when you talk about Cowboys ownership, it’s about them doing their jobs on adding talent to make the team better,” Smith said on the message from the front office.
“For me, I’m blessed to have this opportunity. And Micah is going to do some great things. He’s little bro. We’re all rocking. Leighton is looking great. Keanu, all the new guys coming in, it’s just an amazing linebacker room.”
Smith showed leadership by reaching out to Parsons when he was drafted. Smith called him his little brother. The two men really met when Parsons was at Penn State, and Smith contacted him to compliment him on his skills.
Vander Esch also talked to Parsons after he was drafted.
The Cowboys plan to use Parsons as a pass rusher and a three-down player. You don’t draft a player at No. 12 overall for him to sit the bench on passing downs. So Vander Esch, Smith and Neal will fight for the other full-time snaps.
Neal is new to the group, having played for new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Neal played safety in Atlanta while taking some snaps at linebacker. He’ll play both roles in Dallas.
“Typical linebacker stuff,” Neal said of his role. “Playing the hook. Playing curl. Dropping in our coverages. Lining over the tight end, playing man on the tight end and the backs. Things of that nature.”
Neal has something to prove after signing a one-year contract in free agency, and his NFL career is now a year-to-year thing. Vander Esch also is on the cliff. If he gets hurt again — he hasn’t played a full season since 2018 because of neck, collarbone and ankle injuries — or struggles, then someone else is waiting to take his spot.
It’s hard not to think the Cowboys want Smith on the field less than Vander Esch, who is just the better player and showed flashes of his talent his rookie season. But here’s that word again: competition. How Vander Esch responds will decide whether he can duplicate that 2018 season.
It’s tough to predict just what’s going to happen during training camp and the preseason this summer. The film studies don’t matter. The Cowboys coaches have the final say on who plays, whether we agree with it or not.
In the NFL, competition is a beautiful thing.