OXNARD, Calif. – Step right up Leighton Vander Esch.
It's time. Time to show these Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the National Football League you still da man. Same man you were in your 2018 rookie season when the Cowboys 19th pick in the NFL Draft stepped in for an injured Sean Lee to start 11 of 16 games.
Why, he led the team with 176 tackles that season. Most by a Cowboys rookie and fourth highest in a single season. Was named a Pro Bowl linebacker replacement. Just the third rookie in franchise history to earn Pro Bowl honors and the very first as a linebacker.
Let that sink in.
Ring of Honor linebacker Lee Roy Jordan didn't accomplish that as a rookie. Neither did Chuck Howley, another Ring of Honor member who has an outside chance come Aug. 16 of making it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 final three in the Seniors category. And both also were first-round draft choices.
Pretty high cotton there for Vander Esch entering his fifth year with the Cowboys, a potential free-agent season right around the bend in 2023. In fact, since the Cowboys did not pick up his fifth-year option for this season, Vander Esch had been a free agent this offseason, too, until signing a one-year prove-it deal for but $2 million, $1.75 million of that guaranteed, and with the potential to earn another $1.0 million in incentives.
So here the 26-year-old linebacker is, his fifth training camp with the Cowboys, working with the first-team defense at middle linebacker alongside last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons. Right where he should be, and should have been all along instead of sharing snaps early last season with Jaylon Smith and Keanu Neal.
Right where he could have been all along if not for an injury that interrupted his career in his second and third seasons. First it was the neck, something he had played through for many years until coming to a head in 2019. Vander Esch would miss seven of the final nine games that season because of a herniated disk in his neck, finishing the year on injured reserve.
And a rotten shame since in the first seven games of the season Vander Esch had picked up where he left off his rookie year, totaling 66 tackles, and then 21 more playing in two of the next three games. That was 87 in nine games, on pace for 155 that season.
That led to cervical surgery and spending the 2020 COVID-interrupted offseason rehabilitating.
Yet he was ready to go at the start of the 2020 season. But in the opener, Vander Esch suffered a fractured clavicle and would miss the next four games, along with Games 15 and 16 with a high ankle sprain. Just couldn't catch a break. And that all led to the Cowboys declining his fifth-year option in May of 2021 that would have been worth $9.1 million in 2022.
Thus, a free agent this past offseason, yet decided to remain with the Cowboys on that one-year deal.
"I'm in this good system now with DQ, and I think the second year is going to show a lot for not just my play but the whole team," Vander Esch said of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn returning for a second season with the Cowboys.
Think the Cowboys learned a lesson in 2021 about Vander Esch, having minimized his snaps early in the season, messing around far too long with Jaylon Smith and trying to convert safety Keanu Neal into a linebacker. The Cowboys released Smith after four games, and Neal's snaps began decreasing as the season progressed.
Thus, increased snaps for Vander Esch, especially in those final five games and then the playoff game against San Francisco when he totaled 43 tackles, a six-game pace for a 120-tackle, 17-game season. Get this: In that playoff game against the Niners, Vander Esch, playing 56 of 65 snaps (86 percent), finished with 13 tackles.
What happened? Why the increased production the latter part of the season?
"Getting in a rhythm and playing more," Vander Esch said, but then confidently delivering the clincher to the matter. "You're going to get that out of me if you play me the whole game."
And now with Parsons and Vander Esch, eventually the return to practice for Jabril Cox and once the recently signed Anthony Barr goes through a ramp-up phase since the free-agent linebacker had no offseason with a team, one of the weaker positions on this Cowboys squad just might emerge into one of the strongest.
"I think (Barr) is a good fit and gives us a lot of flexibility to get in and out of defensive personnel as both an on the ball and off the ball player," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
McCarthy would go on to say of the addition of Barr and Cox to the linebacker corps, "It's a long year. There are a lot of different packages. This game is all about matchups and having the ability to move players around. And from an offensive perspective, if there are players you are concerned about on the defensive side of the ball, I know personally just competing against Anthony that he was always a challenge for us, particularly in protection and just because of his flexibility of playing off the ball inside and off the ball as a rusher. So we always had to be conscious of the matchup with him. …
"He's a great fit for us."
And with Vander Esch reestablishing himself on the defense, and now with Barr and hopefully Cox, along with safety Jayron Kearse's flexibility, this will allow Quinn more opportunities to utilize Parsons as a pass-rushing defensive end without sacrificing the linebacker position in various packages.
But in no way does the acquisition of Barr and Vander Esch's ability to man the linebacker position, even in the nickel because of his coverage range, mean Parsons becomes a fulltime defensive end, McCarthy going out of his way to point out that last year 60 percent of Parsons' snaps came at linebacker and the other 40 at open end.
"At the end of the day, it is about what responsibility you give (Parsons), and he needs to be on the line of scrimmage, or at least going after the ball," McCarthy said. "I think we all recognize that. But his ability to play linebacker is obviously a gift.
"His ability to make plays on the second level is a huge asset for our defense."
So, it appeared the Cowboys linebacker position was Parsons, Vander Esch and … (TBD). Now they hope Cox and Barr can give some depth to the spot, especially since it seems they are willing to depend on a healthy Vander Esch, just as they did his rookie year.
"Just wanting to go above and beyond what I did my rookie year and even toward – the consistent play toward the end of last year," Vander Esch says.
"Just picking up where I left off at the end of last season."
When he was on the field.
And so far, so good halfway through training camp.