Will the Dallas Cowboys move on from Leighton Vander Esch?

After the 2021 NFL Draft, the future of Leighton Vander Esch became a hot topic

First-round draft picks are usually the best talents in that draft class. They are the most pro-ready and have the most growth potential. The Dallas Cowboys drafted linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with their first-rounder back in 2018.

Rookie contracts are four years long. First-round prospects have a team option to sign the player to a fifth-year tender, allowing the team to retain the player for one extra year before pumping out cash. The Cowboys opted not to sign Vander Esch’s fifth-year option.

Injuries are an unfortunate plague in professional sports. You could be the best player in the world, but one injury could end your career. Vander Esch knows that very well.

The linebacker missed 13 games over the past two seasons. It’s disappointing considering how promising the Boise State product played in his rookie season.

He was a Pro Bowler that year, making 140 tackles while batting seven passes and intercepting two. In 2019 and 2020 combined, he played 19 games, racking up 132 tackles, no interceptions, and three batted passes.

A significant drop in production with injury issues is a cause for concern. Unfortunately for Vander Esch, that’s not all.

The 2021 NFL Draft finished over the weekend, and the Cowboys drafted two linebackers. One of them was a highly-coveted first-rounder in Micah Parsons. Another is Jabril Cox, a top coverage linebacker that slid to the fourth round.

The tough decision

With everything that has happened, owner Jerry Jones and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are not comfortable with the long-term availability of Leighton Vander Esch. That may be them not pleased with the drop in production or the uncertainty surrounding his health.

According to NFL Network’s Jane Slater, his agent stated that the fragility of the salary cap is what prevented the team from picking up the fifth-year option. That would have paid him $9.1 million in 2022, fully guaranteed.

The salary cap could stay the same or even drop for the 2022 season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over The Cap lists the ceiling at $203 million, which would mean Dallas is already over by $13.8 million.

The 2021 season is now a contract season for the 2018 first-rounder. It’s the last chance he’s got at convincing the Cowboys staff that he is still the dominant linebacker from 2018.

If he fails to put up Pro Bowl numbers and the duo of Parsons and Cox play well,  Vander Esch will hit free agency. If the salary cap does not increase next season, then the linebacker will not return. The numbers don’t fit.

It is looking like the end of the Jaylon Smith-Leighton Vander Esch duo in Dallas. Had there not been a worldwide pandemic, maybe things would have gone differently. It is an unfortunate situation, but the Dallas Cowboys have revamped their linebacking corps once again. Now, without the Wolf Hunter.