FRISCO, Texas — The priority for the Dallas Cowboys this week, the first of 2023 NFL free agency, was to do their best to secure the services of top in-house free agents — Donovan Wilson and Leighton Vander Esch being tops on that list. They achieved their mission with both, as the latter took the same path as the former in opting to remain in North Texas.
Vander Esch officially signed a two-year deal through the 2024 season, his second extension in as many seasons, following a one-year deal signed in 2022.
His value to the Cowboys defense was glaring last season, as the 27-year-old returned to the same form that helped earn him honors as both a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro in his rookie season.
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a player being absent for his value to be truly put on display, and that was the case for Vander Esch in 2023. Many outside of the building didn't recognize just how much he meant to the Cowboys defense — particularly the run defense — over the course of the season until he went down with a pinched nerve in his shoulder that cost him several games in December.
The linebacker corps instantly took a step back, and despite the emergence of rookie fifth-round pick Damone Clark.
Vander Esch is back in top form and reminiscent of the guy the Cowboys used a first-round pick on in 2018, having now turned his one-year deal in 2022 into a justifiable conversation as to why a two-year deal was placed in front of him.
Vander Esch, a former first-round pick out of Boise State who preceded Micah Parsons in landing that honor in Dallas at the linebacker position, is an impact player who is also the green dot for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, in the heart of one of the best defenses in the NFL.
It's a defense that may have upgraded with the acquisition of All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore via trade on Tuesday, and you can bet Vander Esch is champing at the bit to get the 2023 season underway.