The Dallas Cowboys looked to have been set at the linebacker position back in 2018. Jaylon Smith had the best season of his career and first-round pick Leighton Vander took the NFL by storm by being named to the Pro Bowl and garnering second-team All-Pro honors. However, for the latter, the last two seasons haven’t been all sunshine and roses.
Vander Esch has dealt with neck, collarbone, and ankle injuries since his rookie campaign. He’s missed a total of 13 games since that time and it forced the organization to make a tough decision this offseason. Last month, the Cowboys declined Vander Esch’s fifth-year option that would have paid him just over nine million in 2022. Even with that being said, Vander Esch isn’t using that to drive him going into the new season.
“I’ve always been motivated,” Vander Esch said Thursday. “I didn’t have to use that to be motivated to play better or work harder. I’ve been on a mission since the season was over because we just can’t have a season like we did last season. And it’s coming this year. I’m just controlling what I can control, and the rest will take care of itself.”
The cautious approach by the Cowboys when it comes to Vander Esch is understandable considering what they had to deal with when it came to the recently retired Sean Lee. Sometimes these situations can cause a divide between a player and the front office. However, Vander Esch mentioned that he had a great conversation with Executive Vice President Stephen Jones before the decision was made and that he trusted the direction of the organization going forward.
“I’ve got nothing but respect for the Joneses,” Vander Esch said. “They’re the ones that took a chance on me to begin with. “So I mean, I trust in their plan and I think we have a great thing going. Our relationship is amazing. Like I said, I’m just controlling what I can control. I’ve got no control over the logistics of who pays who what. It is what it is.”
Vander Esch has missed nearly a full season’s worth of games over the two last years. Predictably, that’s led to an extreme drop in production. His 132 tackles over that span are eight fewer than he had during his entire rookie season.
The Cowboys recognized it was time for an overhaul at the linebacker position once the offseason came about. First, they signed veteran Keanu Neal back in March. Although he made his name in the NFL as a safety under new Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn when he coached the Atlanta Falcons, Neal will primarily play linebacker in Dallas. Also, they drafted Micah Parsons in the first round of the NFL Draft and added Jabril Cox in the fourth.
Vander Esch was asked about how he felt when the Cowboys used such a high draft pick on Parsons, and the former Boise State Bronco sees good things coming out of it.
“At that point it was just, it was seeing how we can make our team better,” Vander Esch said. “Like I said, I don’t control who they pick. I can control my job and how I play and how I prepare and being a leader, being an example for a guy like that.
“But I mean, you saw him out there today. He’s making plays. He’s having fun. And I’m just pumped to be a part of a group that has the athleticism and the potential that we have going into this year.”
Vander Esch was looking somewhat like his old self during Thursday’s OTA practice. He made a diving interception on a throw by Dak Prescott. It would cause a brief injury scare as he laid on the ground for a while after it happened, but he just had the wind knocked out of him. He would later blow up Tony Pollard on a run play as well.
The Cowboys defense is under a new leader with Quinn, and Vander Esch is looking forward to going back to his old responsibilities.
“I’m going back to pretty much my old role from the first two years, which I think is what it should have been last year,” Vander Esch said. “But I think it’s going to be a lot more familiar to what we were used to running, which is running and hitting and making plays and having fun.”
Vander Esch will be playing for a second contact with the Cowboys in 2021 and the hopes are that it will fuel a return to his rookie form when he was one of the best linebackers in the league.