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Whatever the Amount, Vander Esch’s 5th-Year Option is Too Expensive

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.

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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:

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:

  1. Play 75% or more of offensive or defensive snaps in two of first three seasons.
  2. Average 75% of offensive or defensive plays over the course of first three regular seasons
  3. 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.

What do you think?

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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. Great article and great analysis.

    It is too bad that injurues have wreaked havoc on his career, but it is what it is.

    IMO, he should almost be ineligible for a second contact from Dallas, unless it is for vets minimum with mega performance incentives.

    Player has potential for greatness or paralysis. This is the players risk/bet to make not the teams.

    This draft pick will have to sadly go down as a bust with an asterisk.

    No sentiment contract allowed.

  2. Very good article, Jess. I hate it for the guy but facts are facts. He hasn’t hit the benchmarks. Part of the big gamble the Jones’s took when drafting him knowing he had health issues in college which is the same gamble they will take again when handing him a huge contract in the future. Somebody needs to go join a Gamblers Anonymous meeting LOL.

  3. I can about guarantee you he’ll stay healthy this year and plays well and then Jerry will give him big contract , and then won’t stay healthy the rest of the time in his career ,

    hate to see a guy who has the ability but is limited by his availability , and now with this unknown as well as J Smith being a huge unknown not cuz of injury but cuz of actual play , I think if Parsons is at 10 , TAKE HIM , you need a LB if you want a good D , look at the Bucs , Parsons , 6’2″ 245 lbs. , reportedly posted a 4.41 40 time with speed coach Ryan Capretta , who correctly timed Isaiah Simmons in last year’s draft , Parsons would give us a explosiveness at LB we ain’t had since Sean Lee was in his prime

  4. Thanks for reading! I think we’re all weary of the Cowboys’ risk-taking when it comes to players with injury issues in college. Sure, it can help with draft stock and help you find a steal if it works out. But seems like we often come up on the wrong side of the risk.

  5. Thanks Sam. Agreed that it’s unfortunate, especially after such an exciting rookie season. But those are the breaks,

  6. Are any of you real fans of the Dallas Cowboys? Yall literally know nothing other than to trash on the team an players who played in New system last season. If that’s how yall are gonna be, leave the Cowboys behind and go root for another team, I hear Philadelphia is always looking for new fans.


  7. Jeffrey , what does your football analytics say about LVE and his injury issues ? Lol

    You can trash Nolan all you want , but his system has NOTHING to do with the injuries of LVE , and he’s been dealing with those injuries before he got in the league , and other than his rookie year , he’s been injured every year , why don’t you check your “analytics” again .

  8. I’m really beginning to think that this Jeffrey D Williams guy is really as stupid as his comments make him look!! Apparently it’s Dak and his contacts fault that Vander Esch isn’t worth the 5th year option!! Smh…. Stupid people!!

  9. Dallas tries to buck the trend yr after yr. Hasn’t worked in decades. Bargain basement shopping won’t get you to the SB.

  10. Sorry, Jeffrey, everybody on Nolan’s new scheme was in the same boat. But, not everyone came out of college with serious injury concerns that have kept them off the field as much as on it. I like a healthy LVE. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a healthy LVE for a couple years. I do expect him to miraculously have a good year because of the motivation of it being a contract year. I expect the Jones’s to give him a hefty raise because that’s what they do. Then, I expect to see the LVE that we’ve seen the last couple years to emerge again. If they are gonna spend big, I hear there are some healthy, productive and proven free agents out there this, and, every year. Go get one of them and get to the promised land. You only do that with starters playing most, if not all, of the games.

  11. DO NOT draft or sign a player with an injury history period. We have seen this blow up in Jerry’s face way too often.

    Sean Lee worked out pretty well but even the general had injury issues his last several years. J Smith and LVE were poor choices and a waste of a 1st/2nd rd picks. Jerry knew G McCoy had a preexisting quad issue last but still signed him and we’re out a starting DT before the season even started.

    Jerry likes to take a chance on players no other GM will. He likes to look smart and say he saw something in a player no one else did. Jerry is a smart businessman but a dumb GM. Not to beat the proverbial dead horse but he is what is holding this proud franchise back from tasting more LONG overdue success.

  12. Gary B., I’m on board with everything you said. I’m still cringing over hearing JJ once say in an interview that he “likes to swing for the fence with second round picks.” Seriously? So, swinging for the fence means taking three players in recent memory who were going to be in rehab the first year of their professional career and another on suspension and not doing one thing on the field to help the team. I’m sorry but a second round pick should not only be playing special teams, he should be pushing to crack the starting line-up. You don’t generally improve a team in the sixth round. You get a camp body. Taking seriously injured players in the first and second rounds just boggles the mind and pretty much makes the case that there is no Super Bowl on the horizon for a while.

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