FRISCO, Texas – The day after the 2020 season ended, Leighton Vander Esch said he was "on a mission" to help the defense rebound from a frustrating year with no postseason and the most points allowed in franchise history.
That mindset was already in place before these offseason developments:
In late April, the Cowboys added competition at linebacker by drafting Micah Parsons 12th overall and Jabril Cox in the fourth round.
The next week, they did not pick up the fifth-year option on Vander Esch's rookie contract, making 2021 the last year of his current deal.
Vander Esch has no hard feelings. And none of it alters his goal to make himself the best player possible.
"I've always been motivated," Vander Esch said after Thursday's OTA practice. "I didn't have to use that to be motivated to play better or work harder. I've been on a mission since the season was over because we just can't have a season like we did last season. And it's coming this year. I'm just controlling what I can control, and the rest will take care of itself."
Vander Esch, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2018, 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, followed by 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.
He's scheduled to make $2.1 million this year. A fifth-year option would have paid him a little more than $9 million in 2022. But Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones said last month that the club's intentions are "to keep Leighton around here for the next four or five years."
"We've just got obviously some unknowns," Jones told 105.3 The Fan. "Not unlike Sean Lee, Leighton's had some bad luck with injuries that we were able to work through with Sean. And then of course not knowing what our cap situation is going to be next year, where the league is going to peg the cap, how all of this is going to work out, we just felt like unfortunately we needed to do this.
"But we ... had a good visit with his agent and they know our intentions are to keep him around."
Vander Esch said Jones called him personally regarding the club's decision on the fifth-year option and they had a "great conversation."
"I've got nothing but respect for the Joneses. They're the ones that took a chance on me to begin with," he said. "So I mean, I trust in their plan and I think we have a great thing going. Our relationship is amazing. Like I said, I'm just controlling what I can control. I've got no control over the logistics of who pays who what. It is what it is."
The Cowboys have reshaped the linebacker room following Lee's retirement and veteran Joe Thomas' free agent departure. Parsons and Cox were drafted, and former Falcons Pro Bowler Keanu Neal was signed to rejoin new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme.
Asked specifically about the team drafting Parsons, Vander Esch said, "I think it's better for our team."
"At that point it was just, it was seeing how we can make our team better," he said. "Like I said, I don't control who they pick. I can control my job and how I play and how I prepare and being a leader, being an example for a guy like that.
"But I mean, you saw him out there today. He's making plays. He's having fun. And I'm just pumped to be a part of a group that has the athleticism and the potential that we have going into this year."
Vander Esch had an excellent practice Thursday, diving for an interception on quarterback Dak Prescott near the sideline. He said it briefly knocked the wind out of him, but he returned to drills and later blew up a Tony Pollard run play for a would-be tackle for loss.
"He's in great shape, head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I know my time working with him, this is the best shape overall, because he was coming off an injury this time last year. Just getting himself ready for the endurance of a full NFL season and I think everything else will take care of itself.
"He's been here every day. I love his work ethic, I love his approach. He's top-notch in every category when you're talking about preparing for an upcoming football season. I think the course that he's on, everything in front of him will be attainable."
And Vander Esch is looking forward to playing in Quinn's scheme.
"I'm going back to pretty much my old role from the first two years, which I think is what it should have been last year," he said. "But I think it's going to be a lot more familiar to what we were used to running, which is running and hitting and making plays and having fun."