The Cowboys were waiting with bated breath for the results of Leighton Vander Esch's MRI on Monday, but it appears the former Pro Bowler sidestepped the worst-case scenario
FRISCO, TX — It can't be argued that one of the reasons the Dallas Cowboys suffered a 40-34 loss in overtime to the Jacksonville Jaguars was the loss of Leighton Vander Esch, the former All-Pro linebacker exiting the contest with five minutes remaining in the first quarter due to what was initially labeled as a possible neck injury.
He would not return to the game, and the Jaguars offense went on to pour on over 500 yards of total offense. That's the bad news, obviously, but there's a silver lining to what happened with Vander Esch, especially considering any mention of a potential neck injury in the same sentence as Vander Esch's name will immediately invoke fear.
He dealt with a neck issue in college and again in 2019, eventually undergoing a procedure to correct the problem, hopefully for good. What he suffered on Sunday appears to have been a stinger/pinched nerve in his shoulder, however, completely unrelated to the injury history in his neck.
"He'll be able to come back and play this year," said Executive Vice President and Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones to 105.3FM the Fan on Monday.
That sound you hear is both you and the Cowboys exhaling in relief.
Vander Esch entered Sunday's matchup as the team leader in tackles (90 combined, 54 solo) and has been key in helping the Cowboys get their struggling run defense in order following the 31-28 overtime loss against the Green Bay Packers, an outcome largely fueled by the Packers running for more than 200 yards against the Dallas defense.
He's started in all 14 games this season though, given the short week ahead of taking on the visiting Philadelphia Eagles on Christmas Eve, he would've been hard-pressed to be available for that matchup, under the circumstances. As such, per head coach Mike McCarthy on Monday, Vander Esch has been officially ruled out of the division matchup.
This means the Cowboys will add the linebacker position as the latest with a depth and rotation concern, the other being at cornerback following the loss of both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown to season-ending injury.
The difference here is Vander Esch will return, so the question isn't if, but when.
The debut and continued play of rookie fifth-round pick Damone Clark helps the unit avoid disaster in the moment, but it will also put more of an onus on Dallas to see what they have in backup linebacker (and former fourth-round pick) Jabril Cox, who has been either inactive or relegated to special teams this season — one or the other on any given week.
The plan would also have to include Luke Gifford, a special teams ace who could be looked upon to take defensive snaps as well.
With the recent release of Malik Jefferson from the practice squad, there are no linebackers on the 17-man unit, making Cox and Gifford the only current solutions to play alongside Clark and four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr.
That's a lot to be figured out in a short week, but the Cowboys have no choice but to find a workable solution.
Make no mistake about it: replacing Vander Esch's value won't be an easy task.