There's no denying that Leighton Vander Esch has had a disappointing start overall to his NFL career. But based on three key factors, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker could be in line for a major resurgence in 2022.
After an outstanding rookie year in 2018 that made him a Second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler, Vander Esch's health issues nearly derailed his career. Neck concerns diagnosed during the 2019 offseason clearly affected Leighton's style of play that year and eventually cost him the last quarter of the season.
Leighton returned in 2020 but suffered a broken collarbone in Week 1 and missed nearly half the season. In the 10 games he did play, like much of the Cowboys defense, Vander Esch seemed to struggle adapting Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme.
At this point, the former first-rounder's future was definitely in question. There was enough concern that Dallas didn't exercise the 5th-year option on his contract and allowed Leighton to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
Thankfully, last year showed glimpses of Vander Esch's rookie form. He was playing his best ball late into December and was one of the few standouts in the Cowboys' playoff loss to the 49ers. That momentum was enough for Dallas to give Leighton a one-year deal to come back and prove he's worth an even greater commitment.
What helped Vander Esch have that late-season surge in 2021, and do those factors still exist now? Thankfully, all of these are still in effect and could have even greater impact this season.
1. Improved Confidence
This is a twofold factor; Vander Esch's confidence in his health and in his performance.
One of the biggest issues we've seen in Leighton's play since 2019 is a hesitance and lack of aggression. This is only natural after being diagnosed with neck issues that threaten your career and beyond. Unfortunately, timidity doesn't work for playing any NFL position and especially linebacker.
Additionally, a lack of confidence after down years causes many players to start second-guessing on the field. Again, this doesn't work in football and can be lethal for linebackers in the open field.
The Vander Esch we saw at the end of 2021 looked far more sure of himself and more willing to dive into the fray. Assuming those carry into this season, Leighton should consistently be a far more effective player.
2. Dan Quinn
One reason for Vander Esch's improved confidence is getting a legit defensive coordinator back in his ear. Mike Nolan was a one-year blunder, probably Mike McCarthy's worst move so far as head coach, and Dan Quinn's arrival in 2021 was a move to the other extreme. Dallas went from having arguably the NFL's worst DC to perhaps the very best.
Quinn's impact on Vander Esch may have been effected early by the presence of Keanu Neal. After the safety following Quinn to Dallas and worked on converting to linebacker, he took up attention from coaches that may have otherwise gone to Leighton. He also ate into the share of practice and game reps.
But with Neal now trying to play safety again in Tampa, Vander Esch heads into 2022 as an unchallenged starter. Leighton should get even more benefit from Quinn's presence and tutelage, plus have more scheming done to enhance his individual strengths and mitigate his weaknesses.
3. Micah Parsons
The NFL is now fully on notice; the Cowboys have perhaps the best linebacker in all of football. Now with a full offseason for competition to scheme against him, Micah Parsons will be getting more attention from opposing offenses than ever before.
That can only help his teammates, and perhaps nobody more than his fellow linebacker. Vander Esch's late-season performance in 2021 was partially due to the impact that Parsons was having. We may now get to see a full season of that effect.
There's a reason we often think one duos with great linebackers. Dan Quinn had one in Seattle with Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright; the two are able to play off each other and one can generally shine when the other is getting focused on by blockers.
Not only will Parsons command attention in 2022 but he and Vander Esch will now have a better opportunity to develop their partnership in clearly-defined roles. While we'll certainly see Jabril Cox and others in rotation, Micah and Leighton are your starters and will be on the field as much as their bodies allow.
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So yes, the arrow is definitely pointing up for Leighton Vander Esch in 2022. And as I wrote about earlier this offseason, a huge season could very well take him out of Dallas depending on the kind of contract he's looking for next year.
But that would be a great problem for the Cowboys to have! It would mean that Vander Esch was back to the kind of impact player we saw in 2018; arguably the best LB performance we'd had between Sean Lee's best years and Parsons' arrival.
If we get that version of Vander Esch again, the Dallas defense could turn into something truly special this season.