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Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch were odd linebackers out for Cowboys

Mike Florio and Chris Simms analyze why 58 throws is not sustainable for Dak Prescott to maintain after Dallas' Week 1 loss, especially given the QB's shoulder trouble over the summer.

The Buccaneers ran 64 plays Thursday night. The Cowboys gave their five linebackers 131 snaps, but they weren’t evenly distributed.

Rookie Micah Parsons was on the field for 51 snaps, and free agent signee Keanu Neal played 50.

That didn’t leave many snaps for anyone else, with Parsons and Neal serving as the primary nickel linebackers.

Jaylon Smith played 16 and Leighton Vander Esch 14. Jabril Cox didn’t see action on defense.

“I think they understand if you look at the big picture,” coach Mike McCarthy said of Smith and Vander Esch, via Mark Lane of WFAA. “We took 24 defensive players into the game. We had projections of how we wanted to play guys, and we knew it was going to be a challenge with the climate and the humidity. I think we really hit the target as far as getting the distribution of playing all the guys on defense. So, yeah, personally, I can’t speak on their behalf. If they weren’t frustrated, I’d be disappointed. These guys have played a lot of football throughout their whole career. It’s our focus to be better as a whole as a defense and frankly the more players you play, the better off you’re going to be.”

Smith, a former second-round choice who counts $9.8 million against the cap this season, played 97.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season. Vander Esch, a former first-round choice who is making $3.77 million in the final year of his deal, played only 10 games last season. Still, he played 42 percent of the defensive snaps for the season.

Both players could get a fresh start somewhere else next season. The Cowboys declined Vander Esch’s fifth-year option. Smith has no guaranteed money left on his deal and is scheduled to count $11.8 million against the 2022 cap.

Parsons, the team’s first-round choice this spring, is the big man on campus now. He totaled seven tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hit against the Bucs.

“I thought it was a good start for him,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s beyond his years. He’s still a rookie. It was the first time he played in an NFL game and also the communication responsibility he has to handle. That’s a new experience. I don’t care where you played or how much time you get in the preseason. I thought he got off to a good start.”