Dallas Cowboys: Don’t sleep on Leighton Vander Esch in 2022

(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys made headlines this past offseason for all the wrong reasons. Instead of seeing roster additions populate the newsfeed, Cowboys fans were treated to an onslaught of subtractions. In the rare occasion a retention made headlines, it was usually buried somewhere between the Life and Style section and the Obituaries.

The re-signing of Leighton Vander Esch falls into that category.

There’s reason to believe Leighton Vander Esch is in store for a big season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2022

The indifference towards re-upping Vander Esch is understandable. After exploding onto the scene in 2018 as a rookie, LVE’s stock has cooled considerably. In 2019 and 2020, he graded as a below-average linebacker by PFF and it’s hard to argue with the verdict. Whether Injuries, supporting cast, or simply regression to the mean were to blame, the play on the field was undeniable. So when Dallas passed on his fifth-year option, nobody, not even Vander Esch, seemed surprised.

But last season offered a glimmer of hope. For the first time since his rookie year he played the entire season. More importantly, he played more like his rookie-self last season. Aidan Davis at Blogging the Boys pointed out last week that over the last 11 weeks of the season, LVE played like a top-10 linebacker (check it out see a 2018/2021 season comparison).

There’s reason to believe that 11-game stretch was not an anomaly but rather a product of putting Vander Esch in the right situation.

Looking at LVE’s professional career, it’s impossible to not notice the injuries and the impact those injuries made in his game. As a rookie, Vander Esch was long, strong, and an impenetrable wall. If he got his mitts on you, you were not escaping.

His 6.7 percent missed tackle percentage was amongst the best in the NFL and frankly, those numbers don’t even do him justice. His 81 inch wingspan (which puts him in the 96th percentile) was used to grab and drag down ball careers on a regular basis. There’s a reason most linebackers with low missed tackle percentages have short arms, and it’s the same reason that made LVE so dang special as a rookie. It’s all about the strength.

It’s no surprise that when the injuries hit, the missed tackles started piling up as well. In the nine games he played in 2019, his missed tackle percentage ballooned to 15.3. In his 10 games in 2020, it extended to 16.7%.

It’s not exactly making a leap to say health is related to strength, strength is related to missed tackle rate, and missed tackle rate is related to quality of overall play.

This relationship becomes even clearer when you look at LVE’s numbers from 2021. In his most healthy season since 2018, his missed tackle rate fell to 9.4 percent, with most of the misses coming early in the season.

If the key to great play is keeping LVE healthy, how do the Dallas Cowboys make sure LVE stays healthy?  No. 1 is the play in front of him. LB success is directly related to the DT play in front of them. Linebackers are at the mercy of the performance of the big guys on the line, and LVE is the perfect illustration of that.

LVE has been one of the best linebackers in the NFL when his defensive line is disrupting things in front of him. Play tracking tells us he’s 5th in league. The good news is the Dallas Cowboys appear to better at DT than they’ve been in years.

With a healthy Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa inside, the DT play will likely be the best we’ve seen since 2018. That alone should provide much reason for optimism this season.

The Dallas Cowboys would also be wise to keep snap count in mind. Last season LVE only played 460 defensive snaps. The 58% market share was the lowest of his career. It kept him fresh and effective down the stretch.

With Jabril Cox getting healthy and looking to take a larger load of the snaps in 2022, there’s no reason to think the Cowboys can’t do more of that load management this season. Given the Dallas Cowboys run primarily 2-LB personnel on defense, this shouldn’t be a problem even if Micah Parsons moves to EDGE from time to time.

It’s easy to downplay the significance of re-signing Leighton Vander Esch this season but there are a handful of reasons to be excited about what he can offer if the Dallas Cowboys play this situation right.

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Playing on a one-year/$2 million deal, the risk is low but as we explained, the reward is high. How do you think LVE will perform this year for the Dallas Cowboys