This might become the weakest unit on the defensive side of the ball for the Cowboys in 2023: The linebackers. Leighton Vander Esch had his best year yet, even after missing three games due to injury.
He was playing on a one-year, $2 million dollar contract. Which makes Vander Esch a free agent this year and from the sounds of things, the two sides are far apart on terms.
Inside linebackers that make an impact don't grow on trees.
So the question is: Can the Cowboys live without him?
If the answer is no, then the next question becomes, do they have the money to keep him?
A lot of that depends on how well the Cowboys can trim off some of the cash from other contracts. For now, we'll look at both options.
WILL HE STAY OR WILL HE GO
If the two sides can't make a deal they can both live with and the Boise State grad hits the road, who replaces him at the Mike?
Right now that would fall to a pair of young players out of LSU — Damone Clark and Jabril Cox.
Their combined salary is just over $2 million, about the same as what Vander Esch played for last season. So, they are the more financially solid option, freeing money up to spend elsewhere.
But are they the best option on the field?
Clark had a decent season in his rookie year. Cox has seen limited action in his two years in Dallas.
Of the two, Clark seems to be the most likely to succeed Vander Esch, barring a free agent signing. Unless the Cowboys land a Henry To'oto'o or someone similar in the draft instead.
But that is a lot of pressure to put on a young player, especially given the big shoes he'll have to fill. Which puts Vander Esch in the driver's seat in contract negotiations.
It'll come down to if the Cowboys can find the money and still address their other needs.
SPEAKING OF WILL…
Anthony Barr filled the role nicely for the Cowboys in 2022, and for less than $2 million. But he too is going to be a free agent.
He'll likely be moving on with either Clark or Cox taking his spot.
If Vander Esch also moves on, the two Tigers from Baton Rouge are going to have to grow up very fast in 2023.
THE MICAH PARSONS PROJECT
Micah Parsons is officially listed as an outside linebacker on the depth charts. But he does the most damage moving around the line and attacking the quarterback.
He is safely signed through 2024 with an option for 2025 that will likely be taken.
Parsons provides the lone island of stability in the linebackers room in 2023.
No matter how contract negotiations play out in the weeks to come, there is going to be a new set of starting linebackers in 2023.
How Dan Quinn manages to mold that unit together might be his biggest challenge this year.
We know Parsons is there, an anchor the Cowboys will lean heavily on. If they can find the money they should keep Vander Esch, target a linebacker in the third round, and let Barr go.
Personally, I'd let them both go and target a linebacker in the second round or third if it looks like the right player will fall to them there. This means Clark and Cox will be expected to elevate their games.
Both played in the SEC. Clark was on the 2019 National Championship team. They know what top-level football looks like.
In 2023 they both may be forced to prove they know how to play top-level football. If Vander Esch leaves, and they can't rise to the challenge, the Cowboys' defense will take a huge step backward.