OXNARD, Calif. — Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
However, the former 2018 first-round pick isn't out to prove himself simply because the Cowboys didn't pick up his fifth-year option. For Vander Esch, proving oneself is an annual process.
"You have to prove yourself every year," Vander Esch said. "You have to prove yourself every snap. Otherwise, you ain't going to last long. That's the mindset you got to have, because if you don't have that and you're not out there trying to do your best for your teammates and hold yourself to those standards of doing your job every single play and as close to professional as you can, why are you even out there?"
The former Boise State product flashed in his rookie year with 140 combined tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit, seven pass breakups, and two interceptions in 16 games, 11 of which he started.
Vander Esch's efforts were good enough to earn him a Pro Bowl selection.
In the past two seasons, injuries have gotten the better of Vander Esch with just 19 games logged. The lack of availability has tasked Vander Esch to leave no calorie unburned in the pursuit of perfect football health.
"I'm trying not to eat as much — I guess you could say — the bad, the junk foods," Vander Esch said.
Those junk foods include sodas, alcohol and even Raising Cane's. The 6-4, 256-pound linebacker is working with team nutritionist Scott Sehnert on a daily basis to put the best foods in his body to maximize performance.
"When we go in the cafeteria, we have a bunch of dinners, breakfast, whatever, and he helps me build my plate to what he thinks I need," Vander Esch said.
So far, so good as the 25-year-old from Riggins, Idaho, claims he is in the best shape he has ever been for training camp — a testament to the diligence Vander Esch displayed all offseason.
Said Vander Esch: "This offseason it was go-time from the second the season was over for me. It was on that mission that I said I was going to be on, and I was in the facility every single day working, running, treating my body right, eating better, going and getting therapy on my body, massages, all of that stuff. So, I think it's paid off."
After a disappointing 2019 campaign where Vander Esch played in nine games due to a neck injury, the linebacker didn't have the best of rehabs in 2020.
Not this time.
"I cut down on my body fat percentage and obviously gained a lean mass," Vander Esch said. "I think I tried to gain weight over the last couple of years, but it wasn't necessarily the good weight. But I trained this whole offseason from January. So, constantly losing body fat percentage and gaining in lean mass."
The results have been evident through a week of training camp. Coach Mike McCarthy says Vander Esch's work in the weight room throughout the offseason is evident on the practice field.
"He did a great job in the weight room and his body and his movement reflects that," McCarthy said.
Vander Esch is also playing in a scheme with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn that could take advantage of his talents and give him the best opportunity to score a new contract, whether with the Cowboys or elsewhere.
"This is a scheme I fit into," Vander Esch said. "I think that's obvious. So, I'm just thankful DQ is our coordinator and the rest of the coaches we have around us. I think they're doing a good job teaching it and laying that foundation for us to be able to go out there and play fast and have fun doing it, and to grow that identity for us."
Whether Vander Esch were in the first or last year of his contract is immaterial — the linebacker is appreciative of the pressure.
"I'm a ballplayer," Vander Esch said. "I'm still getting paid to play pro football. So, I got no complaints. I'm just focused on the season."
Do you think Leighton Vander Esch can return to Pro Bowl form in 2021? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.