FRISCO, Texas – The top pick from the 2018 draft class is returning, at least for a year.
The Cowboys signed Leighton Vander Esch on a one-year deal Friday, which keeps the former first-round pick in Dallas and adds needed depth to the linebacker position.
Originally drafted No. 19 overall in 2018, Vander Esch became a fan favorite right from the jump, with the help of his popular "Wolf Hunter" moniker, helping to revitalize the Dallas defense on a 2018 playoff run.
He was named as a second-team All-Pro during his rookie season. Then injuries derailed his next two. In 2019 and 2020, Vander Esch appeared in just 19 of 32 games while dealing with neck, collarbone and ankle injuries.
It was enough of a deterrent that the Cowboys opted not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract -- though he did rebound to appear in all 18 games last season, tallying 90 total tackles with a sack and an interception.
And at just 26 years old, Vander Esch figures to have plenty more gas in the tank. Through four seasons he has 349 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups and three interceptions.
Vander Esch will continue playing alongside NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, who emerged as a cornerstone player on defense in his first season. And 2021 fourth-round pick Jabril Cox will be back from an ACL injury.
The Cowboys still have work to do at linebacker, though. Free agents Keanu Neal (unrestricted), Luke Gifford (restricted) and Francis Bernard (exclusive rights) are still unsigned. Safety Jayron Kearse, the defense's leading tackler who often played down in the box last season, is also a free agent.