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Comparing Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to determine which Cowboys LB is more valuable

Things haven’t been that great at linebacker for the Cowboys, but which of these players is worth keeping around for the long haul?

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Something has gone awry with the play of the once dynamic linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. It seems like just a couple years ago that this tandem was making plays all over the field and it felt like the Dallas Cowboys were set at linebacker for years to come. In fact, the 2018 version of the Cowboys defense was ranked fifth in the league in run defense, allowing just 95 rushing yards per game. Compare that to this years team, and we saw a unit that gave up 159 yards a game, ranking them second-worst in the entire league. There were a lot of chefs in that hell’s kitchen to contribute to this unappetizing plate of run stopping, with the performance of Smith and Vander Esch being right square in the middle of it. Bon appétit.

Many were expecting a bounce back season with these two after seeing a drop off in play from both of them in 2019, but things just seemed to get worse. And while both were believed to be a part of this team’s long-term future a couple years back, their recent play has shot a lot of holes in that idea to where now some are wondering - which of these guys, if either, is worth keeping around?

The Clear Eye View of Jaylon Smith or the Wolf Hunting prowess of Leighton Vander Esch? Which player would you prefer the Cowboys keep? Today, we’ll take a look at a few different factors and see if they can help us identify which player is more valuable to this football team.

Who’s the better performer?

On the surface, Smith seems like the player who hurts the team the most. He’s certainly the more scrutinized of the two, and some of that he brings on himself. Smith’s untimely celebration swipes rub fans the wrong way as his level of enthusiasm doesn’t always align very well to what’s going on in the game.

Vander Esch’s poor play, on the other hand, hides a bit under the radar. Part of that is that he’s missed at least six games in each of the past two seasons, so there’s definitely a lot less opportunity to see him mess up. But when he’s actually on the field, what is he doing for the team?

Taking a look at their stats over the past three seasons appear to paint a picture that seems to contradict fan perception.

What are these stats telling us?

First, we see two very comparable linebackers during their well-performing 2018 season. They both racked up tackles and each of them found different ways to make splash plays for the defense.

As for the following two seasons, Vander Esch not only comes up short in volume stats because of fewer games played, but he missed tackles at a higher rate. The numbers also indicate he’s a bigger liability in coverage and his splash plays pale in comparison to Smith.

While statistically Smith is hands-down the better of the two, is that really the case? Those of us who have spent a lot of time watching game film know that a lot of Smith’s tackles come from clean up efforts where he’s had to chase down a runner after they’ve gotten passed him. Is it fair to punish Vander Esch for missing all those tackles when he puts himself in better position to at least attempt the tackles in the first place? Maybe not, but it is fair to acknowledge he’s just not making many plays for the defense.

Verdict: Smith might be a little better than we give him credit for, but both of them did not play well last year, and as far as which player is the better of the two - it’s too close to call right now.

Who’s more available?

This one is super easy so we won’t spend a lot of time here. Vander Esch has had a rough go staying healthy. He missed seven games in 2019 with a neck injury that required surgery. He then got hurt in the season opener this past season after breaking his collarbone, missing a total of six games on the year. And let’s not forget that the year before his breakout season at Boise State he missed eight games with another neck injury. Maybe all this is just some bad luck on the injury front for Vander Esch, but is it possible his body just can’t endure the wear of an NFL linebacker?

Surprisingly, the guy many thought would never play football again after a gruesome knee injury in college is holding up quite well. After sitting out his entire rookie season recovering from that knee injury, Smith has played in all 64 games since he first stepped on the field back in 2017. In fact, with Dak Prescott’s injury this past season, Smith joins DeMarcus Lawrence (another player people once thought was injury prone) as the team’s leader in most consecutive games played (if we just disregard the often disregarded L.P. Ladouceur).

Verdict: Easy call here. It’s Smith.

Who’s the cheaper option?

Right now, LVE is super cheap as he’s still playing on his rookie contract (contract details courtesy of spotrac).

While LVE provides a cheaper cap hit this upcoming season, soon the Cowboys will need to make a decision about what to do with him long term. That decision starts with determining if they want to exercise his fifth-year option for the 2022 season, which the team will need to decide by May 3rd. Because of the new CBA, the fifth-year option will look a little different now. To begin with, once it is exercised, that fifth-year salary becomes fully guaranteed. That’s different than how things were previously where the team wasn’t on the hook for his salary until the first day of that fifth season. That means in a few months the Cowboys will need to decide if they’re willing to commit to him for that fifth year. Secondly, because Vander Esch has already had a Pro Bowl season, his fifth-year option cost equates to the cost of the transition tag for linebackers. That cost is $13 million for the 2022 season.

When it comes to Smith, he’s essentially already costing the Cowboys that much per season as here is how his contract looks after signing his extension in 2019.

The Cowboys are more committed to Smith as they have him for an average of $12 million for the next five years. And with each year that passes, the escape hatch for his contract gradually improves as the dead money hit continues to drop.

Verdict: Vander Esch is cheaper for the upcoming season, but after that, the costs are pretty similar. It’s also cheaper to walk away from Vander Esch if they just let him hit free agency after his rookie deal expires versus some degree of dead money hit that would come with Smith’s release.


Both these guys played great a couple years ago, yet both have struggled in recent years. Hopefully, some improvements in coaching as well as better play in the trenches will help these guys look more like their 2018 versions. While Vander Esch’s high points are a little better than Smith’s, his low points are also a little lower. And LVE’s inability to stay healthy also affects his overall value to the team. At this point, I’d be surprised to see the Cowboys exercise his fifth-year option. That’s not to rule out him playing with the team after the 2021 season, but this would allow the Cowboys to get another year of evaluation before making that commitment. By that point, they may have a better idea as to which linebacker is more valuable to the team. But what do you think?


Which linebacker do you want the Cowboys to keep long-term?

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    Jaylon Smith
    (188 votes)
  • 22%
    Leighton Vander Esch
    (328 votes)
  • 21%
    (311 votes)
  • 44%
    Neither, hit the reset and draft a new one
    (653 votes)
1480 votes total Vote Now

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