Two years ago, Leighton Vander Esch looked to be on the road to becoming the Cowboys' next great linebacker. He and Jaylon Smith each had phenomenal 2018 seasons, with Vander Esch even earning Pro Bowl honors during that rookie campaign.
Since then, however, it's been almost all downhill. While Jaylon Smith gets most of the criticism, Vander Esch has been far from perfect himself. His biggest downfall may be his injuries. Vander Esch missed 9 games with a neck issue back during his Sophomore season, and another six this year with a broken collarbone and ankle sprain.
When he has been on the field, Vander Esch has frequently lacked gap discipline. Most famously when Lamar Jackson shook the entire Cowboys defense out of their shoes for a touchdown run on that fateful Tuesday night.
After tallying 140 tackles during his Pro Bowl rookie season, Vander Esch has made 132 tackles in 19 games over the last two years. Fallen off a cliff is an understatement.
But what's next for the young linebacker?
For starters, Dan Quinn's hiring as the defensive coordinator should help him out a bit. Vander Esch thrived during the four-man front Rod Marinelli era in 2018, and under Quinn the defense should stay gapped out against the run. Hopefully this will simplify things for him and Jaylon Smith, allowing them to get back to making plays.
I'm skeptical, but that's the hope at least.
The question of his health is another one altogether. I would never shame a guy for suffering serious injuries, but it does feel like Vander Esch simply cannot stay healthy. Similar to the linebacker who came before him, Sean Lee, Vander Esch has suffered a laundry list of serious injuries which have kept him off the field.
It's cliche, but the best ability truly is availability. And Vander Esch has not had it.
The 2020 Cowboys defense was one of the worst units in team history. And while the big pass plays they allowed are incredibly concerning, their inability to defend both the traditional run game and mobile quarterbacks might be even more of an issue.
Leighton Vander Esch is going to have to be a guy who steps up next season for this defense to get back to acceptable levels.