(Editor's Note: Over the next month, the staff of DallasCowboys.com is looking to answer the 20 biggest questions facing the team heading into 2021. Today, we'll debate if Leighton Vander Esch bounces back this season.)
FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch back in May.
That immediately makes this a contract season for the linebacker as he enters his fourth pro season. Does that mean it will be his last in Dallas?
Not necessarily but the Cowboys made a statement when they chose to do that, which happened to be right after the draft when the added both Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox.
But, when healthy, Vander Esch has proven to be one of the best inside backers in the league, even earning All-Pro as a rookie in 2018.
So what does 2021 look like for LVE? Our staff writers debate what kind of season he will have.
9) Will Vander Esch Answer The Bell In 2021
Rob Phillips: Yeah, I think Vander Esch bounces back in a pivotal contract year. It really just comes down to health, because not only did injuries sideline him for 13 games the past two years, he didn't always seem entirely comfortable when he did play, particularly last year in a new defense and a new position. Vander Esch sounds very excited about returning to the weak side, where he made the Pro Bowl in 2018. He's had some bad luck with injuries, but you know he's going to put in the work. This is a collective mission, too: the Cowboys have taken steps to fortify the interior defensive line, which would help all the linebackers get off blocks and make plays. Perhaps there will be a rotation of sorts because of the position's depth, but I think Vander Esch will start and be effective in Dan Quinn's scheme.
Jonny Auping: It's just so hard to answer that question because it seems like something a medical professional could parse out better than a football expert (not that I am a football "expert"). The short answer is, if healthy, I think Vander Esch will be excellent. Seventeen games without any significant injuries would result in a Pro Bowl season or at least a level of play high enough to show in the defense's performance, in my opinion. I think it's really unfair, sometimes inaccurate, and completely lacking in empathy to just label guys as "not durable." Leighton Vander Esch didn't come to the league with some sort of defect that has resulted in a lot of time off the field. It has been a confluence of events, some of which are related and perhaps some that are a coincidence. One significant injury can have a lasting effect on someone's body. It can lead to other injuries. Or two injuries can be completely unrelated and just a result of playing a violent sport and a brutally physical position in Vander Esch's case. Trainers wouldn't put him on the field if it were unsafe. He's some version of healthy right now, so it's reasonable to be cautiously optimistic for a great season from the young linebacker.
Mickey Spagnola: Not only will he answer the bell, he'll be the one ringing it on defense. Health willing. Do we remember his 2018 rookie season when he led the team with 176 tackles, setting the franchise single-season rookie record by 40 tackles? When he became the first Cowboys rookie linebacker selected to the Pro Bowl? Just needs to stay healthy. His neck injury cost him seven games in 2019, but maybe as bad, slowed him down significantly in the majority of the other nine trying to play through the bulging disk in need of repair. Then in 2020, after spending the majority of the offseason rehabbing from that surgery, he breaks his collarbone in the season opener. There goes another four games and half of another. And when finally starting to get in a groove, a high ankle sprain cost him the final two games of the season. He's appeared a man possessed this offseason, knowing he's in the final year of his rookie contract and motivated to prove to the Cowboys should have picked up his fifth-year option.