The Dallas Cowboys have until May 3rd to decide if they want to exercise their fifth-year option on Leighton Vander Esch’s rookie contract. But given the linebacker’s injury issues and regressing performance the last two years, Dallas is unlikely to give him any major guarantees until they see how he performs in 2021.
There’s been some confusion about what Vander Esch’s option year would cost. Figures ranging between $12-$13 million have been thrown around for a while based on Leighton having been a Pro Bowler in 2018.
However, the fine print in the collective bargaining agreement shows that Leighton hasn’t met the criteria for the highest payday.
Yes, Vander Esch made his first and only Pro Bowl as a rookie. However, he was only an alternate and made the roster when Luke Kuechly pulled out of the event due to injury.
According to the CBA, only a first-ballot Pro Bowl appearance counts towards the 5th-year option criteria.
The NFL reminded clubs today they have until May 3 to exercise fifth-year options on their first-round picks from the 2018 draft – and the value of those options is based on performance, with players selected to 2+ Pro Bowls getting the 2021 franchise tag number. From the memo: pic.twitter.com/Se2oFLCRxB
In addition to his Pro Bowl appearance not counting, Vander Esch’s numerous absences due to injuries have cost him the playing time criteria as well. The thresholds are:
- Play 75% or more of offensive or defensive snaps in two of first three seasons.
- Average 75% of offensive or defensive plays over the course of first three regular seasons
- Play 50% of offensive or defensive snaps in each of first three seasons.
Sadly, Leighton’s chronic neck issues, a broken collarbone in 2020, and other minor injuries have kept him reaching any of these. He’s only appeared on 42-47% of the team’s defensive snaps each of the last two years after 77% as a rookie.
Long story short; Vander Esch only qualifies for the lowest tier of 5th-year option compensation at $9,145,000. But even that reduced amount is probably too rich for the Cowboys.
Based on current salaries for inside linebackers, $9 million would still make Vander Esch one of the 10-15 highest-paid players at his position. It would also give him one of the highest single-season cap hits of any players on Dallas’ roster.
What’s more, the fourth and fifth years of the player’s contract become fully guaranteed once the option is exercised. That means Dallas would still be stuck with the financial burden even if Vander Esch’s health issues continue to keep him off the field.
Leighton might be worth that risk if he was still the same guy from 2018. He’d even be worth the top-tier amount of $14.7 million if he was still playing at that level.
But with his play trending downward and availability still highly suspect, Leighton Vander Esch needs to prove something in 2021 to get any future consideration from the Cowboys. They can always work on a contract extension with him during the season or in 2022, but right now there’s just too much uncertainty with the player for anything more.