The overall performance of the linebacking unit was a bit disappointing last season for the Dallas Cowboys. Most would use much stronger terms. While Jaylon Smith attracted the most criticism, at least in part because he is quite vocal with the media, Leighton Vander Esch was part and parcel of the issue. Many have questioned if the team would be best served to move on from one or both. Because of his huge contract, Smith would be very difficult to trade or release. Vander Esch, still on his rookie deal, is another matter. A team acquiring him would only be on the hook for his $2,095,608 base salary, while the Cowboys would have to absorb a not overwhelming $1,674,142 in dead cap. Reportedly, other teams have inquired about a trade, but have been rebuffed.
Addressing the Leighton Vander Esch trade rumors, per a source informed...yes there have been other teams interested in the linebacker but I’m told the #Cowboys are not interested in a trade and he’s still very much a part of the defensive plan next year and in the future— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) June 2, 2021
If this is an accurate reporting of what exactly was said, then there is a problem. Channeling Mr. Spock, this is completely illogical. This is a case of words and actions telling us two different things.
Those actions have signaled quite clearly that the outlook for Vander Esch with Dallas has a one-year horizon. The most clear indication was the team declining to pick up his fifth-year option. Sure, they could still try to work out an extension but just in general, not exercising fifth-year options point to teams planning on moving on after four years.
Then there are the linebackers added to the roster. The biggest free-agent signing was Keanu Neal, with an unequivocal plan to move him from safety to linebacker. He is an old Dan Quinn hand, and the apparent value the new defensive coordinator places on being able to trust a player even with a position switch hints at a level of discomfort with the returning veterans. Then the team used their first round pick on Micah Parsons, followed by a double dip at the position in by taking Jabril Cox in the fifth. Expending that much cap space and draft capital on linebacker points to wanting to be able to change the personnel. That change is also looking like it is intended for the short term, but was just unworkable right now.
We discussed the idea of trading Leighton Vander Esch on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel. Make sure to subscribe (which you can do so right here) so you don’t miss anything we put out over there.
Aha, you may say, then why didn’t they just move on from LVE already? I’m glad I put that question in your hypothetical mouth. There are two reasons.
First, it is all but certain that Smith, Vander Esch, Neal, Parsons, and Cox are the five best linebackers on the roster right now. And five is about the minimum you can carry on an NFL team. Who would take Vander Esch’s position? Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard are the likely suspects, and neither has really stepped up so far. One of them might challenge in camp, but that seems more like it would be to convince the staff to carry a sixth LB rather than boot one of the top five.
Given that you really need Vander Esch just to fill out the position, it is unlikely that the team could get sufficient value in a trade to create a new need at this late date. The trade would probably be at best for a mid-to-late-round pick. That is not much return on a former first-rounder. If someone was offering a high pick for LVE, the conversation would be very different.
The Cowboys are saying with their actions that Vander Esch will have to prove on the field that he is worth keeping beyond this season. However, re-signing him after a strong 2021 is also not likely. If he shows he is good enough to keep, his price as an unrestricted free agent might be unworkable. Those teams reported to have shown interest in trading for him will now have a way to get him without surrendering any draft capital, however small. In this situation, Dallas would have to outbid other suitors to keep him. Stephen Jones might be able to step up to the plate, but he has shown very little willingness to do so except for a select few.
The only path for Vander Esch to remain with the Cowboys in 2022 would appear to be having a mediocre year that keeps his market down, but is still good enough to retain him for depth purposes. That is a narrow path. At best, he would have to fend off any new linebackers the team brings in for next year just to keep a spot. That’s not a plan as much as it is a fallback position.
The most logical explanation for the statement Slater was given was that her source’s lips were moving. With players that are on the team currently and very likely to make the 53-man roster, staff members would be foolish to undercut them by saying something like “Oh, he’ll be around this fall, but can get his bags packed after the season is over.” Obfuscation is a way of life with NFL teams, and this kind of sugar-coating is not something to burn the source for Slater. The first part about other teams having sniffed around was the money part. The rest is just the dance that goes on with people who want to keep you interested but don’t want to give away too much.
Live long and prosper.