Cowboys face decision in 2022: Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch

FRISCO, Texas -- When Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy got together with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn last Friday morning, they began dreaming up ideas for the best way to use their 2021 first-round draft pick, linebacker Micah Parsons.

"We were starting to plan packages and personnel groups," McCarthy said. "We just want to get Micah here, get him comfortable in the room, and it is going to be more about selecting not only what he can do but how it fits everybody else. Once again, he is a multidimensional and multipositional player for us."

How the Cowboys make it work with the linebacker group of Parsons, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will be among Quinn's biggest challenges in taking over a defense that allowed a franchise-record 473 points in 2020.

Parsons was the highest-ranked defensive player on the Cowboys' draft board, according to owner and general manager Jerry Jones. McCarthy said Parsons could play all three linebacker roles and serve as a designated pass-rusher.

"I play with a lot of effort; that's what I think I do best," Parsons said. "I'm always trying to get to the ball. I'm like a ball hawk. See ball, get ball. 'Waterboy' type."

The Cowboys can hope Parsons is another Bobby Boucher.

Parsons, 21, seems to feel at home with the Cowboys. He grew up a Cowboys fan because of his father, Terrence. Micah was even comfortable enough to call the owner "my man, Jerry Jones." He visited The Star twice while a player at Penn State. His best game was his last game, the 2019 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium, when he tied his career high with 14 tackles and had three tackles for loss and two sacks.

"There were, what, six, seven plays on his highlights on his point of attack tape that was on there," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said.

In the two days after Parsons was drafted, McCarthy was asked if he could be compared to Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner or two players from Quinn's past, Vic Beasley with the Atlanta Falcons and Bruce Irvin with the Seahawks. Wagner has been one of the best all-around linebackers in the NFL. Beasley and Irvin were more pass-rush threats.

"I don't think you can be one-dimensional in the league now with how many backs there are; receiving backs and tight ends that are going out into the slot," Parsons said. "Me being versatile will have me here for a long time."

Surely, Parsons will be on the field a lot in whatever role he earns from now until the start of the 2021 season.

But what happens with Smith, whose $7.2 million base salary is fully guaranteed, and Vander Esch, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2018? Free-agent pickup Keanu Neal was viewed as a weakside linebacker, at least in sub packages, in addition to safety.

Either Vander Esch or Smith will be off the field if the Cowboys follow their sub-package percentage from the past few seasons and Neal, a safety by trade, plays a linebacker role.

McCarthy is trying to paint a positive picture in May that will look a lot different come September.

"Your base defense when you play with three linebackers off the ball, or two off the ball and one on the ball, it just -- I'm trying not to be redundant here -- it gives us tremendous flexibility," McCarthy said. "It definitely makes Leighton and Jaylon better."

The addition of Parsons, however, also puts a clock on Vander Esch and Smith. One will not be with the Cowboys in 2022, just purely out of economics and salary-cap issues.

The Cowboys did not pick up Vander Esch's $9.1 million fifth-year option for 2022, which would make him an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Smith is under contract through 2025, and his $9.2 million base salary next year becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. If the Cowboys released him before then, they would save $5 million against the cap.

Whoever plays better in 2021 would seem to have the better chance to be a Cowboy in 2022; Vander Esch with a new deal or Smith on his current deal.

Parsons is the present and the future at the position, but right now he is looking forward to learning from both of the more senior linebackers.

"I think they're going to take me under their wing and teach me how to be a pro football player and help me get better every day," Parsons said. "And we're going to push each other, and I think once we all come together, we'll play at an elite level. This defense can be the best defense in the National Football League."