Grim Leighton Vander Esch update has Cowboys fans fearing the worst

October 8, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55)
October 8, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) / Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

A fervid talking point down the stretch of the 2023 regular season and into the playoffs was the Dallas Cowboys' lack of presence at linebacker. Leighton Vander Esch's season-ending neck injury left the Cowboys with one true linebacker on the roster: second-year man Damone Clark.

Vander Esch's physical presence would have moved mountains during this pivotal stretch, including the wild card loss to the Packers.

While the Cowboys are expecting to get Trevon Diggs and DeMarvion Overshown back from their respective ACL tears in time for training camp, it remains to be seen if Vander Esch will be back in a playing capacity in 2024.

There was growing fear at the time of the injury that Vander Esch could be forced into early retirement. Fans have waited with baited breath for a verdict on the 28-year-old. Speaking to reporters from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, EVP Stephen Jones dropped a grim hint on Vander Esch's future.

Another neck injury may force Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch to retire

Jones didn't confirm anything regarding Vander Esch's future, but his quote doesn't inspire confidence that the former Pro Bowler will be back. Given Vander Esch's history with neck ailments, it's unfortunately no surprise that his playing career is in jeopardy.

Coming off a Pro Bowl season as a rookie, Vander Esch missed seven games in 2019 with a neck injury. He underwent surgery that December only to suffer a broken collarbone in Week 1 of the 2020 campaign that shelved him for six games. He rebounded to play every game in 2021 before a neck stinger cost him the final three games of the 2022 season.

After playing 31 of a possible 34 games over two seasons, the Cowboys signed Vander Esch to a two-year, $8 million contract in free agency last offseason. He got off to a strong start before he suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week 5 against the 49ers on a seemingly dirty play from Trent Williams.

If nothing else, Williams' "block" on Vander Esch was entirely unnecessary as it had zero impact in the play's outcome. The former first-round pick landed on injured reserve before further testing prompted Dallas to end his season.

There hasn't been any word on Vander Esch until Jones' comments. It might be unfair to say the executive vice president tipped his hand, but his update leaves Cowboys fans fearing the worst regarding Vander Esch's future.

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