FRISCO, Texas – As always, this is the uncertain time of the year.
Roughly one-third of NFL rosters turn over every offseason as each club looks for ways to improve its fortunes moving forward. The Cowboys are no different, as they'll face many tough decisions in the coming months.
With that in mind, we're evaluating each position on the roster and what choices face the front office in 2021. Part 4 focuses on the linebackers.
What's In Store For Sean Lee & LVE?
It's remarkable how similar these two careers already seem.
The Cowboys drafted a highly-talented linebacker who wasted no time displaying a staggering amount of talent and intelligence. The only thing preventing him from being among the best linebackers in football is his own ability to stay on the field.
That paragraph described Sean Lee for much of the past decade, and – unfortunately – it currently describes what the Cowboys have in Leighton Vander Esch.
Speculation surrounded Vander Esch at this time last year, after he missed the final six games of the season with a neck injury that required surgery. Given the amount of talk about his durability, it's not surprising he was tired of hearing about it by the time the team reported to training camp.
"I'm not worried about my neck anymore. I don't talk about it," Vander Esch said in August. "It is what it is and people can think what they want to think about it."
Credit to Vander Esch, his neck didn't give him any trouble in 2020. Unfortunately, other things did.
Vander Esch cracked his collar bone early in the Week 1 loss to the L.A. Rams and was out of the lineup for five weeks while he recovered. He came back remarkably fast, managing to play 32 snaps against Arizona on Oct. 19.
He played the next nine games from there, tallying 57 tackles and a big forced fumbled in the Nov. 1 loss to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, he sustained an ankle injury in the Dec. 20 win against San Francisco, and he was forced to miss the final two games of the season while the Cowboys fought for a playoff spot.
In talking to Vander Esch immediately after the season, it's clear the additional injury woes were a source of frustration.
"I'm going to train my frickin' butt off this offseason," he said. "I'm not really going anywhere. I'm going home for two weeks and I'm coming right back. I'm going to be here training all the way through February, March and April. That's just what it is. I'm already looking forward to it. I'm on a mission, and I think all the guys should be too."
No one could ever question Vander Esch's mindset, but his status does present the Cowboys with a decision. As a first-round pick in 2018, his rookie contract comes with a team option for a fifth year.
The Cowboys have until May to decide whether they'll pick up that option, which would extend Vander Esch's contract to the 2022 season at an inflated cost. If they decide not to, Vander Esch will be headed for free agency at this time next year.
On one hand, when he's healthy, Vander Esch is one of their better defenders. On the other hand, does the front office want to extend a linebacker who has missed 13 games to injury in the last two years?
At the very least, it's a problem that shouldn't feel new to the Cowboys. Lee was not a first-round pick, going 55th overall back in 2010, but he has faced the same issue of All-Pro potential, coupled with unfortunate injury issues.
At the age of 34, Lee is no longer a centerpiece of this defense, but he and the Cowboys are also faced with a decision.
Lee mulled retirement following the 2019 season, but the fact that he managed to play all 16 games – not to mention his obvious love for the game – prompted him to return on a one-year, $4.5 million deal last spring.
Injuries were more of a problem in 2020, as Lee missed training camp and the first half of the season with a sports hernia injury. But, upon returning in November, he did manage to play the last nine games, tallying 20 tackles while playing 30% of the snaps.
"I think physically at times, you're like, 'You've been through a lot,'' Lee said in December. "And then I get out there and I feel great, and I'm able to help, and that pushes me to come back a lot of times."
Lee said he plans to take time with his decision, just as he did last year. If he does opt to come back, would it be with the Cowboys? And if he doesn't, what's the game plan for replacing him? Fellow veteran linebackers Joe Thomas and Justin March are also pending free agents, which means the Cowboys currently have little in the way of depth behind Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch.
That makes two big decisions. One is facing the Cowboys, in regard to Vander Esch's long-term future; the other is facing Lee, in regard to his own future.
Those two outcomes won't just shape the team's linebacker corps in 2021, but for the next few years to come.