Former Pro Bowl Cowboys Starter Could Leave for NFC Rival

Dallas Cowboys

Getty Leighton Vander Esch

Leighton Vander Esch is veering toward unrestricted free agency for the first time as a pro, his rookie contract expired. And while far from the hottest commodity, the veteran Dallas Cowboys linebacker should not struggle to find a new NFL home.

Pro Football Network’s Ben Rolfe has an idea of Vander Esch’s projected courtship, naming the Green Bay Packers as a landing spot for the former Pro Bowler’s services.

Rolfe also floated the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots as possible suitors but cautioned that Vander Esch may be forced to settle for a prove-it deal while rehabbing his marketability on a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

“The Packers have the perfect pitch for Vander Esch this offseason. ‘Come play in Green Bay, and you could boost your value in a similar way that we helped Campbell do so last year,” Rolfe wrote, referencing the one-year, $2 million pact LB De’Vondre Campbell accepted in 2021. “The Packers would need that pitch to work because, from a cap space perspective, they are up against it. They would essentially need Vander Esch to come in at close to minimum and load the contract with incentives to make it work.”

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Aim Higher?

The 19th overall pick of the 2018 draft, Vander Esch earned $2.095 million in base salary this past season when he recorded 48 solo tackles, four tackles for loss, one interception, and a sack, grading out as Pro Football Focus‘ No. 27 LB among 89 qualifiers.

Particularly if Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn becomes the next Broncos head coach — and especially because he proved his health, appearing in all 17 regular-season games — Vander Esch perhaps could do better than a short-term, low-dollar commitment from an interested party.

“From Vander Esch’s perspective, this option would not be high on his list,” Rolfe wrote. “He would hope his improvements in coverage over the past two years — plus his tackling prowess — would be enough to convince a team to offer more. However, he could certainly do a lot worse this offseason than gambling on himself in Green Bay and having the chance to go win a Super Bowl. How attractive a proposal this is will likely hinge on what looks to be happening with Rodgers in Green Bay this offseason.”

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Watkins Unsure of 2022 Return

Among multiple other members of the Dallas defense, lineman Carlos Watkins is, too, scheduled for free agency in March. Watkins inked a one-year, $1.75 million contract last offseason and contributed 32 tackles, one sack, and an INT on 438 snaps.

Asked after the Cowboys’ loss to San Francisco in the NFC Wild Card Game whether he’d return, Watkins was unable to formulate much of a response — nor able to fully process the emotions from a crushing defeat.

“I really don’t know. I’m just going to shut it down and get over the depressed stage right now,” he told reporters, via “It’s tough. I really didn’t want it to end this way, but it’s part of the game.”

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