It was just two years ago that Leighton Vander Esch was coming off an impressive rookie year where he and Jaylon Smith seemed to emerge as a foundational linebacker tandem for the Cowboys defense. Flash forward to today, and Smith is one of the most controversial players on the roster after a steep decline in play and Vander Esch has missed at least six games each of the last two seasons. Both watched their potential replacements (Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox) get drafted this offseason, which is why both have seen their names come up in trade rumors.
Neither has actually been moved - yet, that is - and the news coming out on Wednesday is that the Cowboys have declined teams’ interests in trading for Vander Esch, even after declining his fifth-year option earlier this summer. Not only are they not interested in trading him now, but the report indicates they may have long-term plans for Vander Esch after this season, at which point his contract will expire.
As for what role the Cowboys might envision for the former first-round pick, we need only look to his rookie year. Taken with the 19th overall pick, Vander Esch was not immediately crowned a starter. Smith had just finished his first season as an NFL player after effectively redshirting his rookie year; the former Notre Dame linebacker played in all 16 games with six starts and was viewed as an emerging player heading into 2018.
Instead, Vander Esch’s pick was seen as insurance for Sean Lee. After a strong return to form in 2016, in which Lee played 15 games and was named a First-Team All Pro, he missed five games in 2017, solidifying the notion that Dallas simply couldn’t count on him being available for a full season.
As such, Lee and Smith began the season as the Cowboys’ top two linebackers, with Vander Esch coming on in base formations. Of course, it didn’t take long for Vander Esch to be inserted into the starting lineup, as Lee missed weeks 4-6 with an injury. Lee returned in Week 7 and was back in the starting lineup, but another injury wiped him out for five weeks just a game later. During that time, Vander Esch’s exceptional play moved him up the depth chart, and by the time Lee was healthy again his role had changed.
No longer was Lee considered a starter when healthy. Now, Lee was the seasoned veteran whose experience made him invaluable in the locker room and film room but whose banged up body limited his value on the field. And therein lies Vander Esch’s new role in Dallas.
Now, Vander Esch never reached the same level as Lee did in his prime, and he’s certainly not as experienced as Lee was in 2018. But the similarities are there. Vander Esch may begin the 2021 season as a starter, but the crowded linebacker corps with Dan Quinn confidant Keanu Neal alongside Parsons, Cox, and Smith will limit his snaps if injuries don’t do so first.
Parsons is set up to take a lot of snaps as the 12th overall selection this year, while Cox’s athleticism and coverage skills will get him involved early on in some capacity. Between those two, it’s likely that the future for Vander Esch is in the same vein as Lee the last few seasons. Judging off his comments made at the end of the 2020 season, Vander Esch already has the right kind of mindset:
Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch talking about his injuries, says he’s going to train harder this offseason than he ever has. Sounds like he basically plans on living at The Star. “I’m on a mission, and I think all the guys should be too.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 5, 2021
And nobody has ever really knocked Vander Esch’s intangibles anyway. He was the heart and soul of the Boise State defense in college, and draft experts mentioned Brian Urlacher as a pro comparison for a reason. His issue, like Lee’s, was always about health and durability.
Fortunately for the Cowboys moving forward, Parsons and Cox have both been extremely durable in their college careers. So after cycling through three high-profile linebackers with varying degrees of injury concerns coming into the NFL, Dallas may have finally solved that issue. And it could potentially work out beautifully with the uber-talented, yet oft-injured, Vander Esch functioning as a mentor to both of them.