Dallas Cowboys: Leighton Vander Esch not worth a fifth year option

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The Dallas Cowboys have a decision to make regarding the future of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. The former 2018 first round pick is entering his fourth season and Dallas is obligated to decide by May 3 whether or not to pick up his fifth year option.

If Dallas picks up his option, they’re on the hook for roughly $13 million in 2022. If they decline the option, then Vander Esch becomes a free agent following the upcoming 2021 season.

Initially, I planed to pen this article in the form of a question, “should they or shouldn’t they” but I found myself hard-pressed to present a compelling case for the affirmative. There’s really no logical reason to pick up the option, so why beat around the bush?

Here’s why the Dallas Cowboys should not pick up Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth year option this spring.

Before we get started, let’s first explain what the fifth year option even is. It’s changed under the new CBA so it’s worth discussing. Players drafted in the first round are officially under contract for four seasons. Each team has the option for a fifth season but it must be picked up before the fourth season. So teams must decide whether or not they want the player for Season 5 based on seasons 1-3.

For players like Leighton Vander Esch who have been voted to a Pro Bowl (2018), their fifth year option is the amount of the position’s transition tag. That’s where we get the $13 million estimate.

LVE: Reliability

I think we can all agree LVE earns failing marks in this category. After entering the NFL with some health concerns, LVE has done absolutely nothing to dispel worry. He’s played less than 50% of the defenses snaps in each of the past two seasons and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.

Since joining the Dallas Cowboys, LVE has suffered through a handful of injuries ranging from soft tissue, to structural, to potentially career threatening.

LVE: Grades

It’s understandable that given LVE’s propensity to injury, some are likening him to fellow Cowboys linebacker, Sean Lee. Sean Lee has a long storied career of being great when he’s on the field, but also a reputation for not being on the field enough.

But comparing the two players is massively insulting to Lee. Outside of his rookie season, Vander Esch has not been good. Even when he’s “healthy” and playing, he’s been a pretty poor player so he’s not Sean Lee at all.

In a field of 83 gradable off-ball linebackers, Pro Football Focus graded Leighton Vander Esch as the 53rd best in 2021. In 2020, he graded similarly, coming in at 51st in the NFL. As shown above, He’s coming off a career worst in missed tackle percentage (16.7) and completion percentage against (86.4). So even when he is healthy enough to play, he’s playing pretty terribly.

More from Dallas Cowboys

Clearly the play at defensive tackles in front of him holds some responsibility. There’s a reason both he and Jaylon Smith declined significantly after their breakout 2018 season and it’s not just that they had been figured out and exposed.

But even with the somewhat viable excuse of poor DT play, has LVE done anything to make you think he’ll live up to a $13M price tag?

The smart play for the Dallas Cowboys is to decline the option and let him play out his contract in 2020. If he plays poorly and/or is injured half of the year, then we thank our lucky stars we’re free and clear. If he bounces back and resembles that one-season wonder he was in 2018, then you can probably re-sign him a contract in the $13M/year ballpark contract anyway.

The Dallas Cowboys have some tough decisions to make across their roster. This isn’t really one of them. Decline that option.

light. Related Story. Jaylon Stays: What he needs to be successful

Next. It's time for Jerry to insert himself in Dak talks. dark

There’s no reason for the Dallas Cowboys exercise Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth year option. He’s hurt half the time and even when he’s healthy and playing, he’s not good anymore.

  • Published on 03/04/2021 at 12:01 PM
  • Last updated at 03/04/2021 at 10:25 AM