Report: Cowboys expected to decline option on Vander Esch; Quinn anticipates ‘competition’ for LBs

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Todd Brock
·4 min read
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Two days after the 2021 NFL draft wrapped up with the selection of Mr. Irrelevant, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves, once again, on the clock.

Or at least as far as Leighton Vander Esch is concerned.

The team has until 3 p.m. (Dallas time) to exercise the fifth-year option of the linebacker’s rookie deal. If they do, the 25-year-old Boise State product is guaranteed to make $9.145 million with the club in 2022. If they don’t, Vander Esch becomes an unrestricted free agent next March.

According to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News, Cowboys fans should expect the team to stand pat, letting the Wolf Hunter play out 2021 as a contract year.

“We’ve been so focused on the draft,” chief operating officer Stephen Jones told reporters on Saturday, “We’ll obviously get our hands around that in short order.”

Short order is here. But the writing may have already been on the wall, given some of the club’s recent choices.

With their first-round draft pick on Thursday night, Dallas opted to claim Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Perhaps the selection wasn’t a huge surprise, especially since the two top cornerbacks had just come off the board. Given the team’s dreadful defense in 2020 and last week’s retirement of two-time Pro Bowler Sean Lee, taking the player many deemed the best defensive player in the draft neatly filled a newly-created hole in the roster.

But then the Cowboys also drafted LSU’s Jabril Cox early in the fourth round on Saturday. And suddenly, there are more linebackers in the locker room than there would seem to be long-term room for.

Parsons and Cox were among the players Cowboys Wire suggested “could have an impact” on the front office’s Vander Esch decision… and now the team has both of them.

And all of that’s not even counting Keanu Neal. The former Falcon went to the 2017 Pro Bowl as a safety, but now that he’s been reunited with his former coach Dan Quinn, plans are for him to move to linebacker, further muddying the mix for Vander Esch.

“He will be a linebacker,” Quinn told the media Friday in his first press conference as Cowboys defensive coordinator.

“A player I’ve known for a long time,” Quinn said of Neal. “Adding somebody of his speed and his physicality onto our defense, that’s something that we need.”

Vander Esch himself brought a good deal of speed and physicality to the field starting in his first season. An opening-round choice in 2018, the former college walk-on enjoyed a transcendent rookie campaign that resulted in a Pro Bowl nod, second-team All-Pro honors, and an immediate place in the hearts and minds of Cowboys fans as “The Wolf Hunter.”

But injuries have seriously hampered Vander Esch’s career since, causing him to miss 13 games over the past two seasons. Not long ago, he and fellow linebacker Jaylon Smith made up the top-ranked linebacker tandem in the league. By the end of 2020, though, both were seen by many as liabilities: Smith for his erratic and often lackadaisical play, and Vander Esch for his inability to stay on the field.

Vander Esch and Smith will nonetheless play a major role in Quinn’s defense in 2021.

“Both these guys are really getting after it and putting in work to have a fantastic year,” Quinn said.

But he acknowledges that the addition of Neal, Parsons, and Cox to the group signals that nothing is guaranteed.

“Let’s get out and work together,” Quinn offered as an offseason philosophy. “There’ll be some competition where we’re going. But one thing I do know: both these guys are really good players. And as opposed to, ‘Where are they going to go?’ it’s like, ‘How awesome is that that we’ve got more speed, more length, more run-and-hit players?’ As a coach, I couldn’t be more pumped for that.”

For now, anyway, Quinn relishes the notion of having lots of mix-and-match parts to his Cowboys linebacker machine.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the different packages and how we’ll feature the guys. It’ll take us a while to figure it all out.”

But Leighton Vander Esch may not have much of a while to figure out how to extend his tenure with the Cowboys. After having to prove himself as a rookie just three years ago, it appears he’ll have to do it all over again in 2020.

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