Leighton Vander Esch will not be active today when the Dallas Cowboys take on the New England Patriots. As the second-year linebacker deals with lingering problems from a neck injury, which is a chronic problem going back to college, it puts Vander Esch's health and the issues of immediate need and long-term strategy into conversation.
Leighton suffered a neck stinger during the Cowboys' Week 7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. The team had hoped that the following bye week would allow sufficient recovery time, but the issue hasn't resolved and will now take Vander Esch out of today's contest.
While we certainly hope that this is just a temporary problem which will cost Leighton no more than a few games, concerns about his neck go back to his collegiate career at Boise State. During the 2018 draft process, some teams reportedly took Vander Esch off their board due because of those red flags.
Dallas rolled the dice with their first-round pick and got a fantastic rookie season out of Vander Esch. But now we're in Year 2, and even before these missed games we saw that Leighton wasn't playing at the same level.
Vander Esch has not been the same explosive presence on the field this season as in 2018. He's not getting to the ball as quickly or playing with the same great instincts, and now you have to wonder if that's because of hesitance and anxiety over his neck issues.
Managing chronic injury issues is nothing new in football, and it's especially familiar in Dallas when it comes to a star linebacker. Sean Lee has missed 51 games since entering the league in 2010, which is the equivalent of a little over three whole seasons.
The Cowboys certainly don't want to see Vander Esch go down the same career path as Lee. While Sean has been terrific when healthy, his overall body of work has been a disappointment because of all that missed time. Dallas' defense wasn't the same without Sean's leadership and presence on the field, and it often showed in the standings.
Even with greater depth right now thanks to players like Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas, Dallas still misses the Leighton Vander Esch of last season. It's shown in the Cowboys recent inability to stop opponents' rushing attacks; the man in the middle isn't shutting down the line of scrimmage like we'd grown accustomed to.
Now Leighton is out completely, and that means relying on 33-year-old Sean Lee and a backup in Thomas to take on Tom Brady. It's the kind of scenario that we've seen far too often through the years of dealing with Lee's injuries.
What this now leads to are questions about the long-term availability and effectiveness of Leighton Vander Esch. Are there things Dallas can do now, even at an immediate cost, to help protect their investment?
Even if medically cleared to play against Buffalo or the following week in Chicago, should the Cowboys give Vander Esch some extra rest? Should they wait until after the 10-day break following the Bears game?
Or even further, should they shut Leighton down until the playoffs?
Jason Garrett confirmed Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch won’t play Sunday. “We don’t think it’s career-threatening.” Or season-threatening. Week-to-week with neck issue. Said issue is tied to his Oct. 20 stinger vs. Eagles. https://t.co/e0WPQ36vm7
— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 22, 2019
Dallas already has the lead in the NFC East. If they can pick up some wins over the next few weeks, and especially if the Philadelphia Eagles aren't so successful, then the Cowboys should have things mostly wrapped up in the division.
Football is a tough game played by tough guys, and asking them to think long-term about their health can be counter-intuitive. But football is also a business, and sometimes these players need to make business decisions.
I don't know all the specifics about Leighton Vander Esch's neck issues, so maybe I'm talking out of my rear on this one. But after a decade of disappointments with Sean Lee's health I am rightfully worried about a similar road coming for Vander Esch.
Hopefully, the Cowboys have also learned some lessons from Lee and will do what's necessary to protect Leighton now and for years to come.