FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys will not take the fifth-year option for the 2022 season on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s contract, according to their agent Ron Salvin.
With the decision, Vander Esch, who was a first-round collegiate pick in the 2018 draft, will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season.
Vander Esch’s injury history is the main reason for the Cowboys’ decision. In the past two seasons, he has lost 13 games, first with a neck injury that required surgery in 2019 and cost him seven games. In 2020, he missed six games with a broken collarbone.
Had the Cowboys exercised the fifth-year option, the $ 9.1 million in it would have been guaranteed to Vander Esch.
Before officially announcing the decision, team vice president Stephen Jones said during the draft that the team would like to retain Vander Esch beyond 2021 if the fifth year is not added, but that will depend on how he plays.
Vander Esch’s best season was his first year in the NFL, when he was selected to the Pro Bowl after the Cowboys drafted him with the 10th overall collegiate pick. He set a rookie team record with 176 tackles, including 19 against the Philadelphia Eagles. He also had five runs to the quarterback, six passes defended and two interceptions.
Some teams worried about his health when he left Boise State, but the Cowboys took a chance. Either way, Vander Esch injured his neck in a rare collision with a teammate while attempting a tackle in 2019 and underwent surgery to alleviate a nerve problem. Then, in the first quarter of the first game last season, he suffered a broken collarbone.
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The Cowboys have linebacker Jaylon Smith on a contract through the 2025 season, but they can override the deal from a salary cap standpoint with a lot of trouble. In the last draft, Dallas drafted linebacker Micah Parson in the first round, but they believe his versatility will allow them to use all three players at the same time, and also LSU linebacker Jabril Cox in the fourth round.
Vander Esch is the third first-round pick to whom the Cowboys have waived the fifth-year option since the rookie pay system went into effect. Morris Clairbone, taken in the 2012 first round, signed a one-year contract with the Cowboys after the 2015 season and Taco Charlton, taken in the 2017 first round, was cut in 2019.