FRISCO, TX — Leighton Vander Esch will not return for the Dallas Cowboys in 2023. The veteran linebacker suffered a neck injury in the loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5, and though he was placed on injured reserve, there lived at least some optimism that he might return at some point — be it sooner or later.
But with news landing on Tuesday that all hope of that scenario is put to bed, per owner and general manager Jerry Jones, new questions arise about both the future of Vander Esch in the NFL and the linebacker position itself in Dallas.
"The nature of his injury makes me think longer term beyond next week or next month," Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday. "I don't know. There are a lot of factors involved. He needs to see how this continues to heal and then go from [there] on if he wants to expose himself to injury."
If it feels like that statement carries an ominous tone, it's because it does.
Vander Esch dealt with a neck issue during his time at Boise State, but was able to work through it en route to getting the nod as the 19th-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. In his first season with the Cowboys, he went on a tear right out of the gate, earning a Pro Bowl nod as well as honors on the PFWA All-Rookie Team and as a second-team All-Pro.
One year later, he underwent surgery on his neck.
He'd return in 2020, playing in 10 games (10 starts), but only after returning from a surgically-repaired broken collarbone suffered in the regular season opener. He played well in his return, however, delivering 60 combined tackles and a sack, hinting at a strong 2021 season to come; and he delivered with 16 starts and the best season as a pro since his rookie year.
One year later, he'd miss several games during the back end of the season with a neck stinger, though he'd return for the playoffs. And now, in 2023, having suffered multiple injuries to his neck, Vander Esch has a decision to make regarding possible retirement.
It's a choice the Cowboys won't press him on, understanding the gravity of the injury, but they must also push forward this season in his absence, and they've done so admirably.
That is thanks in large part to the play of Markquese Bell and Damone Clark, two second-year players who have taken a major leap forward. Even more impressive is the fact Bell isn't only a former undrafted free agent (2022), but he was signed by the Cowboys to be a safety, and that's where he spent his time as a rookie — perfecting himself for the role on the practice squad.
With the season-ending injury to rookie fourth-round pick DeMarvion Overshown, however, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn opted to sign Bell up for linebacker this year, to fantastic results. He trails only Clark in tackles (48 by Bell, 60 by Clark) and that's despite having only three starts under his belt.
Bell has also helped to bottle up top-shelf running backs like Austin Ekeler, DeAndre Swift and Saquon Barkley. His tandem with Clark is a potent one, and the team also added Rashaan Evans following the injury to Vander Esch, hoping one former first-round pick could help to salve the wound of losing the incumbent one.
Evans' first two elevations from the practice squad saw limited playing time as he was ramped up for more duty, and his third (versus the Giants) was his heaviest workload thus far — playing in 49 percent of the defensive snaps and impacting the game early on.
There's now a roster question to be answered on Evans though, because he is out of elevations until the clock resets for the playoffs. So, if the Cowboys want him to take the field for another game (or games) during the regular season, he must be added to the active roster and, as such, someone will have to be sent to the waiver wire in a corresponding move.
Otherwise, Evans will be relegated to the practice squad until January, but it doesn't feel like the Cowboys can afford for that to be the case. The same is true of Malik Jefferson, who has also maxed at three elevations, though the Cowboys did recently add Buddy Johnson to the practice squad and have yet to elevate him for a contest.
Looking toward the horizon a bit, Overshown returns in 2024, but will the team look to add draft insurance at the position next April, and will it be with a premium pick or a mid- to late-rounder, the latter being a display of confidence in Overshown's ability to return to the form that made him a training camp superstar this past July?
It's not as if they're adverse to selecting one in the first round, after all, considering they've now done it twice in a four-year span.
At this point, two things are true: the Cowboys will miss all that Vander Esch brought to the table, from being the consummate professional and an alpha leader in the locker room who was the first to mentor Clark, Micah Parsons and other (though he remains in the locker room regularly at the moment), and all he brought to the field as well — high football IQ, toughness and a willingness to leave it all on the field, time and again.
The other is that with the emergence of Bell and the leap of Clark, added to the potential of Evans in Quinn's system and some young talent waiting in the wings, the Cowboys dodged a major bullet after losing one of the best players on their roster.