FRISCO, Texas – Help might be on the way sooner than expected.
All eyes have been on Leighton Vander Esch's return date since the season opener, when he exited the loss to the L.A. Rams with a broken collarbone. Typically that injury is a six-to-eight week situation, but Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy raised eyebrows Thursday morning when he said Vander Esch would be ramping up his participation at practice.
"Leighton's going to do a little more today because it's a padded practice," McCarthy said. "In defining a little more, it will be more than the individual drills and we'll just see how that goes. That's the plan going in, and we'll see if he progresses."
Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising. The Cowboys activated Vander Esch's practice participation window on Wednesday, meaning he is allowed three weeks to practice with the team before returning to the active roster.
Still, it's been just three and a half weeks since Vander Esch sustained the injury, and that certainly feels like a rapid timeline for return to the field. It's an assessment McCarthy agreed with when asked.
"I would say he's ahead of schedule. He's definitely champing at the bit to get back, there's no question about that," he said. "But obviously there's medical procedures and process that he must go through and clear. But the doctors and the trainers feel really good about where he is."
Obviously, the Cowboys would love to have Vander Esch back as quickly as possible. Their defense is going through one of its worst stretches in recent memory, lowlighted by a 307-yard rushing performance from Cleveland last weekend. Given his competitive nature, it was not a surprise to hear McCarthy say that Vander Esch is itching to get back on the field.
"If I would go off of my personal communication with him, he would've played in Week 2," McCarthy said. "So he's really pushing it and wants to get back. We have to make sure he's clear and ready to go."
It's all awfully encouraging to hear, but it will hinge on how Vander Esch handles the workload – particularly in Thursday's padded practice. Strictly speaking, he could come off of injured reserve at any time, but just how far away he is may be determined in the coming days.
"Frankly it will be interesting to see, this is his first day in pads, so we have to get over this hurdle first before we can start thinking about that," McCarthy said. "I think the way he comes in tomorrow, the way he feels doing the work that he's going through will all be a part of that."
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