In 2018, it seemed that the Cowboys had solved their linebacker position for the next decade. Jaylon Smith looked fully healed from his horrible knee injury and was moving around on the field like he was projected to do before the injury. The Cowboys also selected Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 draft, and after an injury to Sean lee forced him on the field as the starter, he never relinquished the position.
Both linebackers had terrific 2018 seasons and the dynamic duo was going to rule the middle of the Cowboys defense. Then 2019 happened. Smith didn’t look nearly as good as he did in 2018. Even though he somehow made the Pro Bowl after the season, almost any observer of the Cowboys will tell you something was a little off. Vander Esch also experienced a dip in play and then was sidelined with a serious neck injury.
Suddenly, the Cowboys had issues at linebacker. Or so it appeared, but the organization didn’t even address the position in the 2020 draft showing that hey have every confidence in Smith and Vander Esch. They are making plans to utilize Smith in a new role that might take advantage of his ability to rush the passer.
With Vander Esch, though, it’s all about his recovery from neck surgery. At the time, the issue was serious enough to make people wonder about the prospect of Vander Esch not being able to continue his career. The Cowboys always felt like he would return, and now Vander Esch says the same. In fact, he says he feels as good as ever.
“I am doing wonderful,” Vander Esch said. “I feel as good now as I ever have, before I even got hurt. I mean, I’m ready to roll. I’ve been training full-go for a couple of months now, so it’s not holding me back whatsoever. I feel, like I said, just as good as I ever have. I’m just excited to play football at this point and get back on the field. Whenever they give us the green light to go, we’ll be ready.”
Vander Esch noted that he’s been back to training for months now and that if the Cowboys could hit the field now, he would be there. Dallas is contemplating switching him to the MIKE linebacker and freeing up Smith to move around some and blitz more often. The Cowboys also have Sean Lee in the mix and he played pretty well, although a little inconsistent, in taking over for Vander Esch in 2019.
Neck injuries are a scary thing, but it seems like Vander Esch is good to go after the surgery. If he and Smith can return to the level of play they exhibited in 2018, it would go a long way to improving the Cowboys defense.