Plenty of things caused the Dallas Cowboys defense to not live up to expectations last season. They didn’t get to the quarterback enough, they struggled stopping the run, they missed far too many tackles, and they didn’t take the football away. Basically everything that could go wrong, did go wrong at times on the defensive side of the ball in 2019.
One of the bigger issues for the Dallas defense last year was losing linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Coming off an outstanding rookie season, Vander Esch played in the first seven games of the year. On a personal level, he played fairly well.
As a whole, the defense was not playing great, but they were holding their opponents to an average of around 18 points per game. If your defense gives up 18 ppg in the NFL, your team is going to win a lot of ballgames. Overall things looked pretty solid, and Dallas had a 4-3 record to go with sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
In the win over the Eagles that gave Dallas possession of first place, Vander Esch tweaked his neck, an occurrence that had became all too familiar for the star linebacker. In college at Boise State, Vander Esch missed half of his sophomore year with a neck injury. Before he was drafted in 2018, some teams reportedly flagged Vander Esch on their boards due to his injury history.
ESPN’s Chris Mortenson added that some teams have “flagged” Vander Esch, but not removed him from draft boards necessarily. A neck injury that kept Vander Esch out for half of the 2016 season is part of his medical history, but he played all of 2017.
After missing just one game, Vander Esch returned in Week Nine against the Vikings. He had a decent day stat wise, recording 13 tackles, but according to Pro Football Focus, he recorded his worst overall defensive grade of the season. Next week against the Lions, the trend continued. The linebacker had another rough game, this time receiving a tackling grade of 34.6, the second worst of his career.
Vean a Sean Lee y a Leighton Vander Esch. Uff. Eso duele. pic.twitter.com/yyqmHXXYC5— Mauricio Rodriguez ✭ (@MauNFL) November 11, 2019
With his neck clearly affecting his play, Dallas decided to shut down Vander Esch for the rest of the season. Questions began to swirl if this injury was more serious than the team was letting on, even to the level of whether he could play football again. There were whispers that Dallas would select a linebacker in the first round as a much-needed insurance policy.
However, when he appeared on The ‘Boys and Girl Podcast a few week ago, Vander Esch appeared to put all these concerns to rest. When asked about his health, he had this to say.
“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.”
According to Vander Esch, things seem to be all systems go for 2020. If this is truly the case and Dallas is lucky enough to get him healthy for a full season again, how much could his availability improve the Dallas’ defense? The answer is a whole lot.
When he was able to play a full season in 2018, Vander Esch, according to PFF, graded out as the fifth-best qualifying linebacker in all of football. His overall defensive grade of 84.4 was third highest out of all rookie defenders. The Boise State product also recorded the eighth-best run defense grade of all linebackers at 82.2.
Leighton Vander Esch at the 30-second mark is the definition of blisspic.twitter.com/QSz0kCLb28— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 30, 2018
His outstanding play earned Vander Esch the honor of being named the Cowboys 2018 winner of the Bob Lilly Award. He also became the first Cowboys defender since Everson Walls in 1981 to be named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Things were not as bright for Vander Esch in 2019. He started to struggle for the first time in his short NFL career. In the nine games he played, he missed 12 tackles and only recorded one tackle for loss. Was he completely healthy at all in 2019? However, if you are assigning blame, you can’t put it all on Vander Esch alone. His counterpart at linebacker, Jaylon Smith, had a rough season as well.
With his stellar 16-game performance in 2018, there is enough reason to believe, if healthy, Vander Esch will bounce back in a big way this season. The Dallas defense, as a whole, should be better under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The scheme shift from a passive, limit the big play defense to a much more aggressive one will fit The Wolf Hunter’s playing style. Also, there’s no way to know if he was truly healthy in 2019. It’s quite possible sitting out the ladder half of 2019 and getting neck surgery could make him healthier than ever.
If he is able to stay on the field, Leighton Vander Esch can transform the Dallas defense. He is a Pro Bowl-level player, and one of the best 10 linebackers in the NFC. His presence on the field alone will help make all his fellow linebackers, including Jaylon Smith, better, and will give the defense a big lift as a whole. His health is certainly a question mark, but there’s evidence to believe if he is on the field next season, Vander Esch will have a big year.