FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys chose not to exercise the fifth-year option on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's contract before Monday's deadline, as expected.
That means Vander Esch, the club's first-round pick in 2018, is set to enter the final year of his rookie deal unless both sides agree to an extension at some point.
Vander Esch finished third on the team in tackles (73) last season despite missing six games with injuries: a fractured collarbone in Week 1 that required surgery and a temporary stay on injured reserve, then a sprained ankle in Week 15 that sidelined him the final two games of the season.
Vander Esch has missed 13 games the past two years since his dominant 2018 rookie season, when he became the Cowboys' third rookie defender and first rookie linebacker to make the Pro Bowl. In 2019, a neck injury kept him out seven games and required surgery after the season.
Vander Esch is scheduled to make $2.1 million this year. A fifth-year option would have paid him a little more than $9 million in 2022.
Last week before the 2021 NFL Draft, Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said the club was still deciding whether to pick up the option.
"Any time you make a decision on that, it's the fully body of work," Jones said. "… Leighton's had some unfortunate injury situations. We'll take a look at that and put it all into the mix in terms of where we're going to be with the salary cap and make a decision that's in the best interest of our team. Whether we exercise an option or not, it doesn't mean at all that we're not interested, if we didn't, in keeping Leighton around here."
The draft has reshaped the Cowboys' linebacker depth chart since last week. Former Penn State star Micah Parsons, drafted 12th overall, seems likely to start as a rookie. Former LSU linebacker Jabril Cox, projected as a possible second-round pick, fell to Dallas in the fourth round. Both picks help offset Sean Lee's retirement and Joe Thomas' free agent departure this spring.
The Cowboys have also signed veteran Keanu Neal to reunite with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Vander Esch and fellow starter Jaylon Smith are back for 2021, but clearly there's an influx of talent – and competition for snaps – moving forward.