Colts just gifted Cowboys perfect Leighton Vander Esch replacement with shocking release

Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Darius Leonard (53) celebrates after making an interception
Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Darius Leonard (53) celebrates after making an interception / Jenna Watson/IndyStar / USA TODAY

All signs point to Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch missing the rest of the season with his neck injury.

Retirement could be in the cards for Vander Esch given his history with neck injuries, so the Cowboys moved quickly to sign veteran free agent Rashaan Evans, who was just signed to the active roster after multiple elevations.

While Evans has played decent in limited opportunities, the Colts gifted the Cowboys a more seamless Vander Esch replacement on Tuesday when they shockingly released former All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard.

Leonard will be subject to waivers and while a player with his resume normally would get scooped up in a matter of hours, his contract makes that no guarantee. If a team claims Leonard, they'll be responsible for $6.1 million for the remainder of the season and then the rest of his contract, which runs through 2026.

While Damone Clark and Markquese Bell have been nails in the second level of the defense, inserting Leonard into the mix is awfully tempting.

Cowboys should sign former Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard

A former Defensive Rookie of the Year and two-time first-team All-Pro, Leonard's experienced a shocking decline after battling a back injury that required multiple surgeries. The lengthy rehab seemingly cost Leonard most of his explosiveness. That would explain why his playing time cratered this season but it's rash to assume he's completely washed at 28 years old.

The Cowboys likely only play ball here if Leonard clears waivers. His contract runs through 2026 and he'll cost $16.1 million in 2024, $19 million in 2025 and $19.6 million in 2026, respectively. It's hard to imagine Leonard is claimed given those numbers. If he clears and becomes a free agent, Dallas should be all over this.

If Vander Esch's career really is in jeopardy, Leonard could step in as the new captain of the second level. Perhaps Clark is being groomed for that role, but he's still a developing player and Leonard had years of experience captaining the Colts' defense.

Furthermore, Leonard is just two years removed from his last All-Pro season in 2021 when he compiled 122 tackles, four interceptions, eight forced fumbles (which led the NFL), eight passes defended and four tackles for loss.

Not that the Cowboys are lacking in toughness and leadership, but Leonard is a born leader with an elite mentality. He'd be a seamless fit in the locker room and could work behind Clark and Bell as he gets acclimated to a new system.

Again, we wouldn't touch Leonard's current contract. If he clears waivers, though, the Cowboys would be crazy not to show any interest.

Players like this don't often become available this late in the calendar.

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