Last spring, Leighton Vander Esch took a gamble on himself. He signed a one-year $2M contract to prove himself and boost his market value for the 2023 off-season.
And he did just that this season.
Vander Esch had a solid year. He was healthy enough to play in 14 games and earned his highest Pro Football Focus defensive grade since his rookie season.
At times during the year, Vander Esch played as a man possessed. And in the Wildcard playoff game against Tampa Bay, he was all over the field and a pivotal reason for the shutdown of Tampa's offense.
LVE played a vital role in the defense. With Micah Parsons playing primarily as an edge rusher, he was the most polished linebacker on the roster.
But the Cowboys have the decision to make on his future this off-season.
Vander Esch is one of many key players for the Cowboys who are out of contract. And after playing the year on a cheap deal, the Cowboys will need to open the checkbook to keep the former first-rounder in Dallas.
But will the Cowboys finally commit to the “Wolf Hunter?”
There's no denying Vander Esch's talent. When he plays, the Cowboys' defense gets better. He was a huge part of the defense's success this year. His awareness and open-field tackling were crucial.
There's no doubt the front office and defensive coaches will want him back. The linebacker room isn't particularly deep. And Anthony Barr could be departing too.
We've also not seen enough to believe Damone Clark is good enough to step up in his place. And drafting a replacement would be tough, considering wide receiver and cornerback are arguably higher needs.
These issues point to Vander Esch being a high priority to re-sign. But the reality is the price tag may be too high.
There's a reason why the Cowboys have been hesitant to commit to Vander Esch so far. They've been here before.
Cast your mind back to 2014 when the Cowboys inked Sean Lee to a six-year $42 Million contract.
Lee never played an entire season for the duration of that contract and missed the entire 2014 season.
In a similar comparison to Vander Esch, when Lee was healthy and playing, he was a difference-maker.
So, it's hard to fault the Cowboys over their hesitation with Vander Esch. They don't want to tie up money in another injury-prone linebacker. Especially with the documented neck problems Vander Esch has had.
It's not hard to foresee Leighton Vander Esch pushing $10 Million per year on a multi-year contract. Which on the surface seems feasible.
The Cowboys should offer Vander Esch a decent contract — a fair price but not one that breaks the bank.
But whether Vander Esch returns or not will come down to other teams in the league and how much they value him.
It will only take one team, who doesn't have to worry about re-signing a host of key players in the near future, to offer him more money. And no one could criticize LVE for taking it.
Ideally, Vander Esch would be a top priority for the Cowboys. But there should be a limit on the cheque Jerry Jones is willing to write.