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Report: Cowboys not expected to exercise Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option

5/3/2021 12:21:30 PM
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Barring a Monday surprise, this season will be a contract year for Leighton Vander Esch, Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reports.

The Cowboys have until 3 p.m. to exercise the fifth-year team option on their 2018 first-round pick’s four-year rookie deal. Should they decline that option as expected, the injury-maligned linebacker will become slated to hit unrestricted free agency next March.

His option is worth $9.145 million in 2022.

That salary, guaranteed to Vander Esch regardless of skill, performance and most importantly injury, would be fairly steep in a 2022 season when the NFL’s salary cap will be recovering still from the COVID-19 pandemic fallout on 2020 league revenue.

The Cowboys’ strongest reservation, though, may be his medical history.

As a rookie, Vander Esch showcased his impact potential when at peak physical form, totaling 140 tackles, seven passes defensed and two interceptions. He drew the fourth-highest season performance grade from Pro Football Focus among all off-ball NFL linebackers in 2018; only Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly, Zach Brown were better.

But since that 16-game debut, Vander Esch has played 19 games in two years. His 2019 season featured a slow start before a neck injury against the Philadelphia Eagles proved more serious than the minor stinger it first was thought to be.

After a bye week, he missed one game, returned to play two and missed the final six. Vander Esch was born with spinal stenosis, a condition associated with a narrowing of the spine. This caused the bulging disk to create nerve-related issues, leading to surgery in January 2021.

Vander Esch was a full participant in training camp. On the first drive of the 2021 season, however, he fractured a collarbone. He returned after four missed games but struggled to find his footing at Mike linebacker. A high ankle sprain shut him down the final two weeks.

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