FRISCO, Texas – Sean Lee's retirement shouldn't do much to change the Cowboys' game plan at linebacker, but it does further emphasize an urgent situation on their roster.
This team has a decision to make about Leighton Vander Esch – and that decision needs to be made quickly.
Lost in the excitement of draft preparation is an important date on the league calendar that is quickly approaching. Next Monday, May 3, is the deadline for all NFL clubs to decide on the fifth-year options for their 2018 first-round draft picks.
For the Cowboys, that means a decision must be made on Vander Esch, who was drafted No. 19 overall three years ago. If the team exercises his option, his contract is extended through the 2022 season, with that fifth year coming at a costly salary of roughly $9 million.
If the option is declined, Vander Esch will be in the final year of his rookie deal, with the ability to hit the free agent market next spring.
It's a big decision, and to this point the Cowboys haven't made one yet – or at the very least, they aren't ready to share it. Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones was asked about it Monday on 105.3 FM, and he said as much.
"We haven't had deep discussions on that yet," he said. "Certainly, it will be coming up for us and we'll be discussing that after the draft."
The implications of that comment seem somewhat obvious. The Cowboys hold 10 picks in this week's NFL draft, including four in the Top 100 selections. Whether it's a blue chip prospect like Penn State's Micah Parsons or a lesser-known prospect, they could bolster their depth during the draft.
"Whether it's Jaylon, who obviously we have signed, or a guy like Leighton, who we know is going to be coming up for a contract – you want to have depth there," Jones said. "And as I mentioned earlier, I think we can use defensive help, probably at every level."
Perhaps it's even possible the Cowboys could find a linebacker who changes their thought process on Vander Esch.
The 25-year-old seems to be at a career crossroads since breaking onto the scene as a rookie Pro Bowler in 2018. Vander Esch lost much of his sophomore season to a neck injury that required offseason surgery in 2020.
The neck issue didn't bother Vander Esch last season – instead it was a handful of other things. He broke his collarbone during the 2020 season opener and missed the next month. After returning from that, he tallied 69 tackles across nine starts before an ankle injury held him out for the final two weeks of the season.
It certainly isn't performance that prompts questions about Vander Esch, so much as those health problems. After appearing in all 18 games as a rookie, he has played in just 19 games over the last two seasons.
For his part, Vander Esch is eager to put that topic to rest. Immediately after the 2020 season, he stated his intention to push himself as much as possible to be ready for 2021 – a goal he hoped his teammates shared heading into the offseason.
"I'm going to be here training all the way through February, March and April," he said. "That's just what it is. I'm already looking forward to it. I'm on a mission, and I think all the guys should be too."
It's unlikely that Lee's decision to retire affects Vander Esch, or the team's draft strategy. The former All-Pro had considered retirement in the past, and the Cowboys' choice with Vander Esch is a multi-year decision.
It is interesting to think, though, that the decision could be tied to this coming weekend, and how the dominoes fall during the three days of the draft.