Entering the 2021 NFL Draft, the position of linebacker wasn’t viewed as a pressing need for the Dallas Cowboys with the presence of two former Pro Bowlers on the roster in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Yet, the recent retirement of Sean Lee and losses in free agency likely meant the Cowboys would use one or more of what ended up being 11 total draft selections on the position.
The Cowboys surprised many by drafting Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons with their first-round selection last Thursday night. That after losing out on the draft’s top two cornerback prospects and trading back two spots with the Philadelphia Eagles to select Parsons 12th overall.
Dallas would go one to use their first draft selection on Saturday in the fourth round on LSU linebacker Jabril Cox as well. The introduction of Parsons and Cox to the linebacker corps figured to shake things up at the position in Big D. And the shake-up has officially started.
On Monday, according to various sources, the Cowboys decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on Vander Esch, making the 25-year old linebacker a free agent after this season. Dallas would have been on the hook to pay him $9.1 million in 2022 if they had exercised the option.
Selected 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Boise State, Vander Esch posted an excellent rookie campaign for the Cowboys that resulted in his first and only Pro Bowl nomination and second-team All-Pro honors. That season he posted 140 combined tackles, seven pass deflections, and two interceptions as an 11-game starter.
Unfortunately, injuries have plagued the young linebacker over the past two years. Vander Esch has missed a total of 13 games over that span.
Entering his fourth year in Dallas, Vander Esch will have to prove he can stay healthy and return to his previous form in order to earn a contract extension to remain with America’s Team. And according to reports, the Cowboys brass reportedly still hope to ink him to a new deal at some point.
The presence of two exciting rookies at the linebacker position added to the Dallas Cowboys roster in the 2021 NFL Draft has put both the futures of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith in even more jeopardy than they were before the annual collegiate selection event that concluded over the weekend.