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Leighton Vander Esch Needs a Strong Finish to 2020 for his Future

The Dallas Cowboys still have a lot riding on their final five games of the 2020 season with a division title and playoff spot still on the table. Within that team goal are many individual ones, and Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch needs a strong finish to the year for the good of his NFL future.

Vander Esch is finishing out his third season and is coming up on that critical fourth and final year of his rookie contract. But this offseason the Cowboys will already have a decision to make about Leighton’s future; will Dallas pick up the 5th-year option on Vander Esch’s contract?

As a 1st-round pick, Leighton’s rookie deal comes with the automatic team option for a fifth season. If exercised it will lock the player up through 2022 and pay him equal to the Transition Tender for his position, which is essentially a cheaper version of the franchise tag.

For linebackers this could mean a one-year salary of around $13 million.

The option year has no immediate guarantees so Dallas could choose to exercise it and then back out later. But Vander Esch’s well-known injury issues create a real dilemma for the Cowboys.

If Leighton were to get hurt in 2021 and that injury carried over into the final season, Dallas wouldn’t be able to get out from the option. They’d have all that cap space tied up in someone who may not be helping much on the field.

The Cowboys knew that Vander Esch had a concerning neck issue when they drafted him in 2018. It didn’t show up that year and Leighton put together an outstanding rookie season and even made the Pro Bowl.

Cowboys LB Vander Esch Named November Defensive Rookie of the Month

Unfortunately, the neck problems came into play the following year and cost Vander Esch seven games. Even the games he played in, Leighton wasn’t showing the same aggressiveness and it was evident that the issue was effecting him. He was playing hesitantly, or even scared, and that shows up very quickly at linebacker.

Vander Esch eventually had surgery that December to hopefully correct the problem for the long term. He returned this season and almost immediately suffered a broken collarbone in the Week 1 loss to the Rams.

Leighton returned in Week 6 against the Cardinals but was a non-factor as Dallas got manhandled on Monday Night Football. It’s only been in recent weeks that Vander Esch has started to be a difference-maker on the field and remind you of his rookie form.

That’s hardly the kind of career summary you want when big decisions and millions of dollars are about to be made. And that’s why these last five games of 2020 are of exceptional importance to Leighton Vander Esch.

No, the Cowboys probably won’t come back in the NFC East this year. As it stands they would have the 4th-overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and obviously be drafting high in every subsequent round.

If Dallas doesn’t have faith in Vander Esch’s long-term health, could they use this draft positioning to go ahead and replace him?

We live in a new era of football where players are retiring younger than ever before. If Leighton were to have another injury, and especially anything related to his neck, could we see him follow these colleagues into early retirement?

These are all things the Cowboys and Vander Esch have to be thinking about even now. The team and the player need confidence and these final five weeks of 2020 may be all they get to work from before the decision on the 5th-year option.

Sure, Dallas could decline that option and still re-sign Leighton to a long-term deal. And that may be route they go given the history.

However it plays out, this short stretch to end the 2020 regular season could have a significant impact on Leighton Vander Esch’s long-term future with the Dallas Cowboys.

What do you think?

Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!


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  1. LVE is a good LB when protected and free to hunt, he and Jaylon are a great duo in that type of scheme. Unfortunately we have the wrong DC for the personnel that we have. He will be fine once we change the DC

  2. I like LVE and when he is 100% he’s one of the best LBs in the league. However he appears to be one big hit from going on the IR or calling it a career. He needs to think about life after football as well and not jeopardize his health moving forward.

    It’s not a decision that the cowboys have to make anytime soon. If he holds up the rest of the season and next then we could consider resigning him. But with that type of injury and the fact that he continues to have reoccurring issues with the neck, I would not sign him to a big contract or would have an injury escape clause.

  3. I’m getting flashbacks of Sean Lee getting hurt almost every year. He reminds me of S. Lee alot on and off the field. Which is a good and bad thing.

  4. What games are y’all looking at to say that LVE is one of the NFL top LB? Let’s be honest, over this whole season of games in which he had played you can only name one or two big splash splash plays that he has made, and the one that I can remember is the stop of Dalvin Cook at the goal line. But I see too often where he don’t shed blocks, is driven 5 yards back, not attacking the line of scrimmage and making plays in the backfield and taking bad angles and missing tackles. LVE and Jaylon Smith are bad in coverage and gets washed out on run plays. Joe Thomas was making a lot of plays in the backfield. The top LBs have great instincts and make all those plays more so than not.

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