On Friday, the Dallas Cowboys reached a one-year agreement to re-sign linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. The deal is for a maximum value of $3 million.
Vander Esch was a key contributor for last year’s Dallas defense, playing in every game and making 16 starts. He finished third on the team with 77 tackles. He also added a sack, three tackles for loss, five quarterback pressures, an interception, and two passes defended.
The 26-year old has been with the Cowboys since he was selected 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Boise State. He immediately burst onto the scene, starting 11 of 16 games in the 2018 season and set the Dallas franchise’s rookie record for most tackles in a season (140) and a single-game (19 vs. the Philadelphia Eagles).
For his fantastic rookie season, Vander Esch was named a second-team All-Pro and became the first Cowboys linebacker to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Vander Esch seemed on track to become a star in the league after his rookie year, but injuries derailed his next two seasons. In 2019 and 2020, the linebacker appeared in just 19 of 32 games.
He missed seven of the final nine games in 2019 due to a neck injury that ultimately required surgery. In 2020, Vander Esch only appeared in ten games after suffering a broken collarbone in the opening game and a high ankle sprain with two games to go.
The injuries led to Dallas declining a $9.1 million fifth-year option on his contract, which left him an unrestricted free agent this year. Media reports stated that the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers showed interest in signing him, but Dallas was able to retain his services.
The Cowboys still believe Vander Esch has plenty more left in the tank. He has 349 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 12 pass breakups, and three interceptions through his four seasons in the NFL.
Vander Esch will be a free agent again next year and hopes to return to the level of play he showed in his rookie season, as it would earn him a hefty contract next offseason.
He expressed confidence that he would return to a high level of performance in an interview with Sports Illustrated after his signing.
“My last six games were my best, and I want to build on that,” said Vander Esch. “I’m excited to get back and play for DQ (Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn). I’ve jumped right back into training, so heading into training camp, I feel like this will be the strongest I have ever been. My best football is ahead of me.”
Vander Esch was the second key defensive player to re-sign with the Cowboys last week.
On Thursday, the team agreed with defensive end Dorance Armstrong on a 2-year $13 million contract to return to the team. Armstrong will be the new starting defensive end in place of Randy Gregory, who left Dallas to sign a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos.