For many years, carrying seven linebackers on the roster was part of the norm. However, the game has become increasingly pass-heavy which means teams are less likely to run the ball. With the evolution of the passing game in the NFL, every team’s base offense features three starting wide receivers. Also, the fullback position is essentially non existent these days as teams rarely carry one on their rosters. Due to teams running the ball less and less, the need to start three linebackers is not necessary. In fact, starting just two linebackers is effective in today’s game where offenses are trying to put as many of their best athletes on the field at the same time to create mismatches.
This trend of starting two linebackers isn’t something that just happened in the last few years. It actually goes back to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s where the “Big Nickel” also known as “Wolverine” became a part of defensive schemes. The scheme was invented by Fritz Shurmur.
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Shurmur initially used this scheme in an attempt to stop those great Niners offenses engineered by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. In 1996, Shurmur would deploy this defensive scheme to help the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl. Moving forward to 2011, New York Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell used this same scheme to help capture a Lombardi Trophy as well.
Aside from the main point of just starting two linebackers instead of three, the big nickel utilizes a third safety instead of a linebacker near the line of scrimmage. This third safety typically is bigger than your average NFL safety, but smaller than your average NFL linebacker. So essentially the player that fills this role is a bit of a tweener. Having a player like this is very important in today’s game because offenses deploy more pass catching options which means more wideouts to cover, or even more athletic tight ends to cover, and who wants to see most linebackers drawing that assignment? Most people would take a hard pass on that. Thankfully, the Cowboys re-signed their big nickel ace in Jayron Kearse to fill out the role while young players like Israel Mukuamu and Markquese Bell continue to develop.
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There are a variety of other ways to deploy the big nickel scheme. For example some teams will run a 3-3-5, 2-4-5, and even a 1-5-5. In the case of the Dallas Cowboys however, they tend to run the 4-2-5 big nickel look.
Last year, the Cowboys line up with five or more defensive backs on 97.8% of their plays, and 38% of the formations were either a big nickel or big dime.
Base defense (2 CB, 2 S)
Nickel (3 CB, 2 S)
Big Nickel (2 CB, 3 S)
Dime (4 CB, 2 S)
Big Dime (3 CB, 3 S)
Focusing in on the 4-2-5 big nickel scheme deployed by Dan Quinn allows Dallas from a personnel perspective more flexibility at other positions including on the offensive side of the ball as well. The latest NFL collective bargaining agreement allows for teams to dress 48 players on game day as long as eight of those players are offensive lineman. This would leave 40 slots to fill out the rest of game day roster. With Dallas primarily using the big nickel scheme, this allows them to potentially dress only five linebackers for each game and address other depth issues across the team or even go heavy at a certain position each week depending on the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent they play.
At the moment, there are four locks at the linebacker position. Those four players are Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, Jabril Cox and Luke Gifford. If Dallas were to go lighter at the position and potentially carry only five linebackers on game day, that would mean Dallas has one spot left to fill. At this stage, 2022 sixth-round pick Devin Harper, and UDFAs Storey Jackson and Aaron Hansford are three players to watch out for as they battle for the fifth linebacker spot. Devante Bond was in contention for a roster spot up until recently when a knee injury occurred and ended his 2022 season before it even started.
Another linebacker listed on the roster with high upside is Damone Clark.
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The 2022 fifth-round pick would’ve been drafted much higher if it weren’t for a herniated disc being discovered at the NFL combine. Unfortunately, to repair the herniated disc, it required spinal-fusion surgery. The Cowboys took a chance on another linebacker, Jaylon Smith, who suffered a very serious knee injury prior to the NFL draft. Dallas is looking to hit again on a player who is more than likely taking a redshirt year. The talent for Clark is certainly there, but patience and holding off on playing him until 2023 would be the smart long-term play for the Cowboys.
Considering what Dallas has on the roster currently at linebacker, along with future prospects like Damone Clark getting in the mix in 2023, the Cowboys are shaping up to be very solid in the second level for years to come.