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Report: Cowboys Leighton Vander Esch unlikely to return in 2023, C.J. Goodwin out for season

It appears that Leighton Vander Esch may not return this season for the Cowboys.

New England Patriots v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys remained undefeated at home with a 49-17 win against the New York Giants on Sunday, the start of a stretch of winnable games Dallas is hoping to take full advantage of and play their way back into the NFC East race. Unfortunately, the Cowboys won’t be doing so as close to full strength as they once hoped. According to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News, cornerback and core special teamer C.J. Goodwin is done for the season as he’ll need surgery to repair the pectoral injury suffered in week five at the 49ers. The team was also hopeful linebacker Leighton Vander Esch could rejoin the defense, but that is now highly unlikely as a second neck surgery may be in his future.

Gravity surrounds any neck-related injury for the 2018 first-round pick after a bulging disk ended his second NFL season, prompting a fusion procedure in early 2020. Vander Esch made a quick recovery and returned to play better football than when he left. But it was understood at the time that, if another neck surgery occurred, that second procedure would force Vander Esch to make a difficult decision about his football future. It has not been decided today whether a second surgery will be required to address the current matter, a person close to the situation said.

Indianapolis Colts v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Cowboys have eased these losses well so far, with Nashon Wright immediately filling in to play more than half the team’s special teams snaps in their first game at the Chargers without Goodwin, a season-high 23 snaps the following week vs. the Rams, and 23 more this Sunday vs. the Giants. They also have experimented with Sam Williams as a gunner on punt coverage. With John Fassel having a need for Goodwin, knowing the reliable veteran won’t suit up again this season is a significant loss to that unit.

Following a recent setback, Goodwin said he plans to undergo surgery Friday to repair a torn left pectoral muscle he suffered against the San Francisco 49ers. He’s out for the year. In a less concrete situation, Vander Esch continues to work through a neck injury that forced his exit from that same Oct. 8 game. A person familiar with the matter said Monday he “most likely” will miss the season’s remainder.

As for Leighton Vander Esch’s absence, the Cowboys have found something in the linebacking duo of Markquese Bell and Damone Clark. Having also lost promising rookie DeMarvion Overshown for the season, the Cowboys long-term outlook at this position appears strong regardless of Vander Esch’s status, but how this team can hold up physically against run-first power offenses is still a concern.

Bell and Clark have allowed Quinn to deploy a multitude of defenses with interchangeability between these linebackers and safeties like Donovan Wilson or Jayron Kearse, but when the team needed a base look to line up in quickly, Vander Esch was counted on. Defensive tackles Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore, and Mazi Smith have helped set the tone up front to help make up for this loss, but for a team fighting to regain Super Bowl-contending status, it’s never ideal to see a battle tested player like Vander Esch be lost for the year.

Goodwin’s contract will expire at the end of this season, while Vander Esch is under contract through 2024.

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