Monday is the NFL deadline to decide on fifth-year contract options for 2018 first-round picks, and the Dallas Cowboys have made their call on Leighton Vander Esch.
The Cowboys informed the veteran linebacker that his option will be declined “due to ongoing salary-cap uncertainty,” NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported, adding the team hopes to sign Vander Esch to an extension before his rookie deal expires in 2022.
The Dallas Morning News‘ Michael Gehlken was the first to report on Dallas’ decision.
If exercised, Vander Esch would’ve pocketed $9.145 million next season before hitting unrestricted free agency in 2023. As is, he’s scheduled to earn $2.095 million in base salary and count $3.769 million against the salary cap in 2021, his age-25 campaign.
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When he’s on the field, Vander Esch has been an impactful, three-down, upper-tier linebacker. Problem is, he’s rarely on the field — one of the most injury-prone players this side of Sean Lee, who announced his retirement last week.
Vander Esch returned from career-threatening 2019 neck surgery but was limited to 10 games last year after breaking his collarbone in the season opener. He finished with 60 combined tackles (32 solo), one sack, and a forced fumble across 460 defensive snaps.
“Certainly not unlike Sean, Leighton’s had some unfortunate injury situations,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said on April 27, via Inside The Star. “We’ll take a look at that and put it all into the mix in terms of where we’re going to be with the salary cap and make a decision that’s in the best interest of our team.
“It doesn’t mean at all that we’re not interested, if we didn’t exercise the option, in keeping Leighton around here. Obviously, if we do, that solidifies that he’s here 110%. So we’ll get in a room and go over that and make a decision.”
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Vander Esch has a tenuous grip on his starting job after the Cowboys imported veteran linebackers Keanu Neal and Tarell Basham in free agency. The team also used first- and fourth-round draft selections on LBs Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, respectively, as new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wielded considerable influence in the war room.
“We came in looking to make us a bigger, longer, stronger, faster defense – and a team,” Cowboys personnel czar Will McClay said after the draft. “So when we looked at the process and looked at all the prospects, we’re looking at how they played the techniques and all those things and seeing how they tie in to what the coaches want and what we were looking for positionally and how we wanted to do things. So that was a big part of it, was spending time with the coaches. The best part of our process is being inclusive – not only just the scouts, but ownership and coaches. We all get in there and do this together and figure out what we want to do.”
Vander Esch should remain atop the depth chart, opposite 2022 release candidate Jaylon Smith, for as long as his health allows before passing the torch to Parsons and Cox — the future at the position.
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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL