SpaceX and NASA weren't the only ones working to ensure a successful liftoff in 2020. Having ushered out longtime head coach Jason Garrett and brought in Mike McCarthy to replace him, the Dallas Cowboys are trying to do the same. With McCarthy not only arrives a proven resume that boasts a Lombardi trophy, but -- one that includes the additions of notable assistants like defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
And with Nolan comes a new mode of operation on defense, for while the Cowboys will remain in their base 4-3, they'll more accurately operate withbetween a 4-3, a 4-2-5 and a 3-4, which could make things as interesting for the linebackers as they'll be for the defensive line.
The former saw his season prematurely end due to a neck injury that's since been surgically repaired, and the latter simply suffered a step back from his Pro Bowl season in 2018, much of the reason being additional tasks having been placed upon him (i.e., aiding the pass rush).
Anyone who's studied Nolan knows he has a mind that's as focused on harassing opposing quarterbacks as it is on the development of young linebackers, and that's something both Vander Esch -- NFL level. As seen in , Vander Esch might find himself taking up the role of middle linebacker (MIKE) while Smith is moved to weakside (WILL), which would allow the latter to more freely read, react and attack.-- and Smith are champing at the bit to learn from. Sources tell CBS Sports there is a very real chance that, , Vander Esch and Smith might find themselves being moved to new roles that could truly unlock their potential at the
With Lee, Vander Esch and Smith each having the ability to flex between all three roles -- strongside, aka SAM, being the other -- Nolan has an embarrassment of riches at the position; and the two young linebackers feel the same way about what their new coordinator brings to the table.
"Oh man, I actually experienced [a linebacker-focused coach] in college where Brian VanGorder was my defensive coordinator, but he specialized in linebackers as well," Smith said in a Q&A with Bobby Belt and Jane Slater of 'The 'Boys & Girl Podcast.' "Being a D-Coordinator I think in like 2011 with the Atlanta Falcons, being a linebacker coach for the New York Jets, so I was able to really, really learn a lot about my position having a linebacker-minded, defensive-minded coach. So it's exciting, man, but it's all a blessing.
"You've just got to soak it in."
Smith believes Nolan can truly help him take his play to another level.
"Really, just some added tools for myself," he noted. "Being able to showcase my versatility -- being able to run sideline-to-sideline, being able to rush the passer. I'm just looking forward to being able to showcase all of my talents. These guys are putting everyone in the right position, so all I can be is thankful."
For his part, Vander Esch is all-in on learning all he can about each of the three positions, regardless of where his primary role might be this coming season.
"As linebackers, we should know every position on the field and what they're doing anyway, because that's going to make you a better player," he said.
Nolan's influence is already being felt despite being relegated to a virtual offseason thus far due to COVID-19 restrictions, with the aid of McCarthy, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and a front office doing all it can to give the new coaching regime what it needs to be successful. The signing of Dontari Poe, Gerald McCoy are moves that likely don't happen if Garrett is still at the helm, which was confessed by team exec Stephen Jones this offseason of fitting players to scheme instead of scheme to players.
The team doubled down on bolstering its defensive interior by grabbing Neville Gallimore in the 2020 NFL Draft and added rookie Bradlee Anae to help on the edge -- moves that combine with the return of Tyrone Crawford and expected reinstatement of Randy Gregory to make for a potent front that could additionally benefit both Vander Esch and Smith mightily.
If all goes to plan and the Cowboys can indeed get after the quarterback at will with only three or four rushers, Vander Esch and Smith will be allowed to focus more on shutting the door on halfbacks and mobile quarterbacks (along with coverage responsibilities both have shown they can undertake), because they'll be tasked less often with having to disrupt the backfield. This, ideally, will help the Cowboys shut the door on screen passes they so mightily struggled with in 2019 and to put a cap on the aforementioned mobile QBs -- something that hamstrung them often under Garrett, Marinelli and (later) former defensive play-caller Kris Richard.
Those comparing Vander Esch to Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher might get a true taste of it if he's indeed moved by Nolan to MIKE, and Smith might find himself performing like the Notre Dame version of himself -- if not better -- in a weakside role wherein he's allowed to seek and destroy.
It's a new day defensively in Dallas, and Nolan's young linebackers are fueled and ready to blast off.