Dallas Cowboys: Two high-profile defenders could leave after this season

Dallas Cowboys (Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas Cowboys (Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports) /

It’s tough when you use high draft picks on players, and they don’t pan out, but it could be worse. The Dallas Cowboys see themselves in one of the worse situations. In an attempt to rejuvenate his team’s defense, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones selected Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith two years apart. Smith was a 2016 second-rounder, and LVE was a 2018 first-rounder.

Both players have had similar careers so far. The difference is Smith started with injuries, and Vander Esch had injuries as of late. Pushing that aside, they have been productive while on the field. Jaylon is more of a pass defender, while Leighton was the run-stuffer. Both earned one Pro Bowl nod in their career for their efforts, but things fell apart for both defenders as of late.

LVE’s 13 missed games over the past two seasons have been an issue. His long-term health is a cause for concern and is likely the main reason the Cowboys didn’t pick up his fifth-year option. Jaylon Smith was under a lot of fire over the 2020 season despite recording 154 tackles. That’s because the mistakes he made ended up being very costly. He deserved the shade, but I still believe calls for his name are not warranted yet.

Money Talks on the Dallas Cowboys

With that, the Dallas Cowboys are paying him to play like a top linebacker in the NFL. That’s what his trajectory appeared to be, but a rough 2020 season reversed the positive perception of him.

Jaylon’s hefty contract was the second-largest among interior linebackers and fifth-highest among all linebackers when it got signed. While the 2019 season proved he was worth it, the 2020 season proved otherwise.

If Smith’s production doesn’t return to his 2019 heights, Jerry can wait out this season to buy out the contract. Cutting the linebacker this season will leave $16.6 million in dead cap. Doing that next season drops the number to $6.8 million.

The Dallas Cowboys opting not to pick up Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option means the team is spared $9.1 million against the cap next season. Combine that with the savings from Smith’s contract, and the Cowboys will save the team $14.1 million in cap space.

Moving Forward from the Dallas Cowboys

The departure is sure to leave a noticeable hole in the lineup. That is unless someone else steps up. That’s where 2021 draftmates Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox take over. They are both high-potential players.

While Parsons is a jack of all trades, he specializes in pass-rushing and run-stuffing. That allows Cox to stay back as a coverage specialist. Relying on two rookies to take over at linebacker next season is a bold move, but not out of the question. The Dallas Cowboys organization has all season to evaluate the rookies and the veterans.

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If either Cox or Parsons doesn’t perform as expected, this article will get thrown out of the window. However, if they play as expected, Leighton Vander Esch’s roster spot in Dallas is filled with Jaylon Smith possibly following him out the door.