After a stellar rookie season that resulted in a Pro Bowl nomination, the Dallas Cowboys figured they’d hit the lottery with the selection of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Four years later and the Wolfhunter could be playing his final season in Dallas.
That’s quite a steep decline. From being a breakout superstar on America’s Team to the Cowboys refusing to pick up the fifth-year option on your rookie deal, making 2021 a contract year for the 25-year old Vander Esch.
Since that spectacular rookie season, when Vander Esch recorded a whopping 140 total tackles, seven pass deflections, and two interceptions, the young linebacker has missed a total of 13 games over the past two years due to injuries.
If the best ability a player can possess is truly availability, then the Cowboys were right to pass on that extra contract year in order to force Vander Esch to prove he can stay healthy. And if he’s unable to do so this season, his time in Dallas could come to an end.
But one analyst embedded with the team believes Vander Esch has a solid chance to remain with the Cowboys beyond this season. Here’s how longtime beat writer Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com responded when asked about which player he believed would cash in during their contract year this season.
"“I think Vander Esch will be hungry and ready to prove himself. Now, of course, he has to stay healthy and that’s easier said than done for him. But when he’s out there running around and making plays, he can be as good as any inside linebacker. Something tells me he’s going to thrive in this defense with Dan Quinn.”"
Eatman would go on to mention that he wouldn’t be surprised if Vander Esch returned to Dallas on a big contract extension. Hurting his chances might be the results of the draft earlier this year.
The Cowboys used their first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft is select Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Two days later, the Cowboys drafted LSU linebacker Jabril Cox with their top draft selection on Day Three.
Buth Parsons and Cox represent the future of the linebacker position in Dallas and at a relatively low cost. So inking the injury-prone Vander Esch to a hefty contract extension, especially with linebacker Jaylon Smith‘s massive contract still on the books, might not be in the best interest of the Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys do have a potential out for Smith’s contract after this season. And if Leighton Vander Esch is able to put up a complete season and return to his Pro Bowl form, perhaps the Cowboys would be inclined to sign him to a lengthy contract extension. But there’s a lot of “ifs” that will have to be worked out first.