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.
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.