(Editor's Note: NFL rosters change wildly from year to year. This year will be no different, as the Cowboys seek to upgrade their roster via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft. Still, a large percentage of their roster is already in place, and they'll have plenty of work to do to improve last season's 6-10 record. In the coming weeks, the staff of DallasCowboys.com will evaluate those players who are already under contract, examining their past performance and future outlook. Today, we continue the series with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.)
The Good: It was a challenging year for the Cowboys' defense, and for Vander Esch individually, to say the least. But the former first-round pick managed to finish third on the team in tackles (73, according to coaches' film) despite missing the better part of seven games with injuries. He also recorded his first career full sack in a Week 8 road loss to the Eagles, blitzing and forcing a fumble that led to a field goal for a Cowboys offense forced to play rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci at quarterback.
The Bad: The obvious. The injuries. After a dominant rookie season in 2018 – he became the Cowboys' third rookie defender and first rookie linebacker to make the Pro Bowl – Vander Esch has missed 13 games in the last two seasons. It's arguably been a run of bad luck more than anything: a shot to the collarbone in Week 1 that resulted in a fracture and stint on Reserve/Injured, then a rolled ankle in Week 15 that sidelined him the final two regular-season games. Vander Esch has made clear that his 2019 neck injury and subsequent surgery is now a non-issue, and it didn't impact his availability last season. But there's no doubt the Cowboys need him on the field. They also need Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith to make more of the impact plays that ignited the defense during the team's NFC East title run in 2018. Last season the Cowboys allowed the most points and the second-most rushing yards in franchise history. It was a tough year for the linebackers, but the entire defense struggled for a number of reasons, including an unsuccessful scheme change with no true offseason program under ex-defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, as well as multiple season-ending injuries to the interior defensive line. Twelve takeaways in the final four games was a sign of progress heading into 2021, though.
Best Of 2020: The Cowboys' 31-28 road win over the Vikings in Week 11 was arguably their most impressive victory. Vander Esch tied a season high with 13 tackles in that game and helped limit Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook to 115 yards on 27 carries (4.3 per carry), well below Cook's 5.0 season average.
Contract Consideration: Vander Esch is entering the final season of his rookie deal , though he could be under contract through 2022 if the Cowboys pick up his fifth-year option -- which would be fully guaranteed under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement – by the NFL's May 3 deadline.
What's Next: It remains to be seen how new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn plans to utilize Vander Esch and Smith at linebacker. Nolan flipped their positions last season, moving Vander Esch from the weak side to the middle. One can argue that's not a major change in terms of technique, but playing mostly in the box was an adjustment from an assignment standpoint. Vander Esch played nine straight games from late October to late December said he was starting get more comfortable before the ankle injury. If Quinn's scheme can put Vander Esch and Smith in better places to be successful, the entire defense will benefit. And Vander Esch says he's "on a mission" to be physically and mentally sharper than ever next season.