One of the Cowboys’ best offseason moves was re-signing linebacker Leighton Vander Esch at a relative bargain. But while they have a couple of intriguing young prospects behind him, Vander Esch’s injury history means Dallas has to take linebacker depth more seriously. It should still be one of their top concerns in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Dallas brought Vander Esch back on a steal of a deal; two years and $8 million dollars. Considering that some off-ball linebackers are making $17-$20 million per year, an average of $4 million for Vander Esch is an incredible bargain if he maintains last season’s form.
However, one of the key reasons that Vander Esch could be had for that price was his unfortunate history with injuries. He missed seven games in 2019 due to a cervical nerve issue that required surgery, then six games in 2020 with a broken collarbone. He has rallied a bit lately, playing in all 17 games in 2021 and only missing three games last year with a neck stinger, reportedly unrelated to his 2019 issue.
Even with the more recent uptick in his availability, Vander Esch’s history has to be part of the Cowboys’ strategy at linebacker. And while there’s plenty of optimism for Damone Clark in his second year, and hope for a resurgence from Jabril Cox in his third, that still leaves the LB position awfully thin without more help.
The notion is out there that veteran Anthony Barr, who spent 2022 in Dallas on a minimal one-year deal, could be re-signed in a later offseason move. He would certainly help but is also now 31 years old. Even last year, Barr was a solid contributor but is hardly a difference-maker at this point in his career.
The Cowboys’ need at LB is also somewhat lessened by how they use their safeties, particularly Jayron Kearse, in hybrid roles. When Dallas is in the nickel and other pass-defense schemes, Kearse often plays in the spot where you might traditionally see a second off-ball linebacker. With Donovan Wilson getting re-signed, Kearse will likely see plenty more of this deployment. And the Cowboys can always move Micah Parsons back there, even if that severely weakens the front four.
But even with those factors, there’s the legitimate concern of just how many games you’ll get out of Vander Esch. It’s the same reason that a 27-year-old linebacker with his size and ability didn’t try to find more money in the open market. His history, going back even to college, can’t be ignored.
Thankfully, there are enough mitigating factors with Clark, Cox, the safety usage, and remaining free agent options that this doesn’t have to be a first-round draft priority. But in an offseason where Dallas has hedged its bets nicely throughout the roster, you couldn’t fault them if they do use the 26th overall pick at linebacker.
Remember, Vander Esch is back on just a two-year deal. And so far, the potential seen in Clark and Cox has only come in flashes. As much as we’d all love for this trio to be the bedrock for the LB position going forward, there’s just as much potential for this to be the Cowboys’ biggest weakness without more help.
One of the key reasons for that is Leighton Vander Esch’s proven penchant for injuries. Those three missed games last year, which came dangerously close to the playoffs, were a reminder of his unreliability. As such, the Cowboys can’t afford to take an overly optimistic approach at linebacker this year.