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Cowboys have need at LB but believe Jaylon Smith is ready to take another step

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29: Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith #54 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates after sacking quarterback Kirk Cousins #8 of the Washington Redskins during the fourth quarter at FedEx Field on October 29, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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The Cowboys wanted to keep versatile linebacker Anthony Hitchens but not for the $9 million annual salary the Chiefs gave him. They also lost Kyle Wilber in free agency. Thus, the Cowboys have an obvious hole at linebacker, even after signing former Packers linebacker Joe Thomas for depth purposes.

That’s why the Cowboys have interest in Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, among others, in the draft.

“We could add a couple of [linebackers] here in the draft,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We have 10 draft picks and certainly look to do something there if the right guy is sitting there. We made moves we feel good about. We feel like we could go to work and put the right guys out there and get the job done. But the great news is we do have 10 draft picks, and I do think obviously as we work our way through the draft, I don’t know what level will be taken, but there are some really good linebackers out there throughout the draft that I think could step in and contribute quickly whether that’s in a backup role, or on special teams, but would be linebackers you’d love to have on your football team.”

The Cowboys still have Sean Lee at weakside linebacker, though his health is a constant worry. They expect Jaylon Smith to be even better two years removed from his serious knee injury, but they also have to use caution with his snaps. He played 55 percent of the defensive plays last season.

The Cowboys have talked about possibly moving Smith to strongside linebacker but would have to get a starting middle linebacker -- like a Vander Esch -- in the draft to be able to do that. They also have Damien Wilson, who started nine games last season.

“I think we did a little bit there with Joe Thomas to help us out, but at the end of the day one of the things I’m really optimistic about is I think Jaylon is going to take another step,” Jones said. “He had to focus on playing the game last year. Put the rehab aside for the moment, as he should, and he went to work, tried to help us win football games and did an unbelievable job. He’s going to take a big step this year. He already is, and I think he’s going to improve tremendously. I think he’s going to do an outstanding job for us.

“One of the things we’ll be looking for is to add depth at that linebacker spot. But as far as lining up day 1 and feeling good, who’s going to be manning those positions at our linebacking corps, we feel good about it. We’re excited about getting Damien in there, having him in the mix.”