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Cowboys declining Leighton Vander Esch option sets LB corps on path

The writing was on the wall when the Dallas Cowboys selected an LB in the first round but they made it official by declining Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) and outside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) react during an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Emilee Chinn)

The Dallas Cowboys came into the offseason with a problem at linebacker. The 6-10 club in 2020 didn’t have enough depth or quality at a position that helped land Dallas at next to last against the run.

However, with the initial free agency period gone and the draft now complete, the Cowboys have done a good job of addressing the issue.

It appears as though the Cowboys were planning for the future of the position in the draft when they selected stud LB Micah Parsons out of Penn State in the first round. Dallas backed that pick when they drafted LB Jabril Cox in the fourth round.

RELATED: Dallas Cowboys end final day of NFL Draft with 6 picks

Those two selections could have been a sign for how the Cowboys were feeling about exercising the fifth-year option of LB Leighton Vander Esch. According to reports, the team will not be picking up that option on their starting middle linebacker.

Vander Esch made the Pro Bowl, as an alternate, during his rookie season, but he’s had issues staying on the field since. The $9.145 million dollar price tag to guarantee Vander Esch’s 2022 season appears to be too much for the Cowboys to pay for a good player who hasn’t been able to stay healthy.

Over the course of his three seasons with the Cowboys, Vander Esch has missed 13 games. The decision to decline the option shows that the team felt it was too difficult to justify paying Vander Esch at that price when he’s missed 27% of games with neck and collarbone injuries.

The Joneses love to say the best ability is availability, and Vander Esch hasn’t been available enough. It might be something the organization learned over the course of Sean Lee’s career and didn’t want to pay the price again if Vander Esch doesn’t prove he can play a full season.

RELATED: LSU linebacker Jabril Cox will have to find niche with Dallas Cowboys

By not exercising the fifth-year option, the Cowboys are asking Vander Esch to stay healthy enough to earn his next contract, either in Dallas or somewhere else. If the 25-year old LB can avoid injuries and have a great season in 2021, the team can re-sign Vander Esch or let him walk away in free agency.

Make no mistake, this is still a risk since Vander Esch has shown the skills to make him a Pro Bowl-caliber player. If Vander Esch has a big season to help steer the defense around, he could earn an even bigger contract extension or leave, but it’s a gamble Dallas is willing to take.

Allowing Vander Esch to become a free agent could also net the Cowboys a good compensatory pick in the draft, something the team is now leaning on as a team builder.

With fellow LB Jaylon Smith already on a lucrative contract extension and not playing up to his potential, the Cowboys surely didn’t want to put themselves in that position again with Vander Esch. There’s no harm in allowing the fourth-year LB to play out his rookie deal and assessing his value after the season.

RELATED: Cowboys eventually find their man for the defense in LB Micah Parsons

Also, Vander Esch’s vulnerability to injury shouldn’t be a surprise. There were serious questions about his durability when he was coming out of Boise State. After an outstanding rookie campaign, Vander Esch has struggled on the field and with his ability to be on it.

Dallas simply can’t take the chance that Leighton Vander Esch will become another injury-plagued LB eating up salary cap space. Instead, the Cowboys restocked the LB group in the draft and covered themselves in case of Vander Esch’s possible departure.

Do you think the Cowboys should have picked up Vander Esch’s option? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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