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Leighton Vander Esch presents a tough offseason decision for Cowboys

Given his age and injury history, how much can Dallas trust the linebacker going forward?

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

One of the top unrestricted free agents for the Dallas Cowboys in 2023 is linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. While he’s coming off a strong season, Vander Esch’s age and injury history create a dilemma as Dallas decides how much they’re willing to invest in his future employment.

After a tremendous rookie year in 2018, Vander Esch missed nearly half the season in 2019 and 2020 with separate neck and collarbone issues. Even when healthy, the neck issue that had followed him into the NFL from college seemed to be affecting his aggressiveness or confidence on the field.

Given those struggles, Dallas declined the fifth-year option on Vander Esch’s rookie contract. But after he showed improvement in 2021, both in his performance and health, the Cowboys re-signed Leighton to a minimal one-year deal at just $2 million for 2022.

Now Vander Esch is set to become an unrestricted free agent once more. While he did miss three games last season with a neck and shoulder issue, reportedly unrelated to his more chronic concerns, he also reemerged as one of the team’s more impactful defensive players. Vander Esch’s absence was sorely felt in the late-season loss to the Jaguars.

Coming off arguably his best season since the rookie campaign, Vander Esch is entering free agency with much more juice than a year ago. In what projects to be a thin free agent pool overall in 2023, he could have a market that would make his price go up.

The Cowboys’ modern era of being offseason misers puts question marks on almost any situation. But beyond just their general fiscal conservatism, Vander Esch’s situation does present some legitimate cause for pause. He turns 27 in February and now has five years of NFL mileage on his body. If staying healthy has been a consistent issue up until now, it’s a reasonable concern that it will only worsen going forward.

One can’t help but think of former Cowboys LB Sean Lee when talking about Vander Esch’s health issues. When healthy, Lee was an elite talent and easily one of the best linebackers in football. But even after three injury-played seasons to start his NFL career, his rare talent prompted Dallas to give him a long-term contract extension.

Lee never played a full season. He had a few years where he only missed a couple of games, but others where he’d be out five or more. Lee had also just turned 27 when Dallas gave him that contract.

Of course, these are two different players with different medical issues. Sean Lee’s problems were generally knee-related. But after years of being disappointed by Lee’s struggles, how much does the Cowboys’ front office want to sign themselves up for potentially more?

It doesn't help Vander Esch’s cause that there are two intriguing young LB prospects on the roster already. Jabril Cox and Damone Clark are both athletic talents who could form a strong duo in Dan Quinn’s scheme. Both need plenty of offseason work to be ready for larger roles, but there’s a legitimate reason for optimism as they both get healthier ahead of 2023.

That would be a big gamble for a team that will assuredly be focused on returning to the playoffs and finally getting past the Divisional Round. While having Clark and Cox may make it more palatable to let veteran Anthony Barr walk in free agency, it’d be a much riskier move to anoint them as the starters and replacements for both Barr and Leighton Vander Esch.

There’s always the possibility that Vander Esch, like he did last year, is willing to take a significant discount to return to Dallas. While another $2 million year is probably out of the question, would he accept something in the $5-6 million range?

As a former first-round pick, Vander Esch expected to be making a lot more money at this point in his career. He may be desperate for that one big NFL score while he’s still young enough to possibly get it. But of course, it takes two to tango and the market will decide if he’s even capable of garnering a significant contract.

Given this, it’s likely that Leighton Vander Esch’s return to or departure from Dallas won’t be decided until mid-March. Both parties probably want to see what the open market does for his asking price. If he does become a commodity, Vander Esch could quickly put himself outside of what the Cowboys are willing to pay.

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