After playing only nine games in the 2019 NFL season, Leighton Vander Esch’s health is a top priority for the Dallas Cowboys going into 2020.
Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s rise to the first round of the NFL draft and his great play his rookie year in 2018 is already in the rearview mirror for the organization. If they want to compete at a higher level in 2020 they need their middle linebacker to be healthy for the whole season.
Vander Esch is an interesting breed of a linebacker, built on speed and anticipation, not size and power. This seems to be the continuing trend across the whole entire NFL landscape.
When healthy, he and linebacker Jaylon Smith make a dominant linebacking duo. Fast enough to play every single down regardless of the personnel.
The key phrasing though is when healthy. Vander Esch missed the Cowboy’s last six contests of the 2019 season due to nagging neck problems.
A stretch of football where the franchise went from first place in the NFC East at 6-4. All the way to 8-8 when it was all said and done, and out of the playoffs.
That’s 2-4 football without the young leader of Big D’s defense. The stats back up that record as well, kind of.
The first 10 games the Cowboys allowed 19.7 points per game. The last six games without Vander Esch that rose to 20.7 points per game.
One point doesn’t fully explain that record but it does start to show the effect of the young linebacker. Just look at the winner take all game vs the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16. Dallas couldn’t make key stops on third down, allowing the Eagles to convert six of 14 third downs in the game.
Just two weeks earlier, the Chicago Bears went seven of 12 on third down vs. the Vander Esch-less defense of America’s Team. Those two losses were heart breakers and ended up eventually costing the franchise a trip to the playoffs in 2019.
It comes down to familiarity when a defense starts to have consistent success, the 2019 Cowboys were no different. The defense had their rhythm stripped away when Vander Esch went down for the remainder of the season.
A healthy 2020 campaign for the Dallas Cowboys defense will help them improve their record and it starts with the middle of the defense. Leighton Vander Esch will have to make great strides in his offseason recovery but he is still very young and should recover nicely. 2020 will look different with a healthy Vander Esch roaming the field.