LB Leighton Vander Esch Retires

MARCH 18: Vander Esch announced his retirement on Monday, confirming the expectation that he would be forced to hang up his cleats. This news was further foreshadowed last week when the Cowboys released him. In all, Vander Esch will depart the NFL having played 72 combined regular and postseason games and with $18.25MM in career earnings.

The Cowboys have landed Eric Kendricks in free agency, but further moves will likely be coming to address the linebacker spot. Replacing Vander Esch will now officially be a permanent endeavor.

MARCH 1: Neck issues once again forced Leighton Vander Esch to miss considerable time during the 2023 season. As a result, signs continue to point to the veteran Cowboys linebacker bringing his career to a close.

Vander Esch is expected to retire, Clarence Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. Speculation that would wind up being the case increased in November when it was learned he would be out for the remainder of the campaign. The 28-year-old was diagnosed with cervical spinal stenosis, and undergoing surgery to correct the issue would seriously threaten his playing future.

When asked about the matter during this week’s Combine, Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones deferred (via Hill) to Vander Esch himself about making a formal announcement. The former first-rounder had fusion surgery in 2020, which itself led to questions about his playing future. He managed to remain healthy for two seasons after that, however, suggesting he would be able to remain a central figure in Dallas’ linebacking corps for years to come.

Vander Esch enjoyed a highly impressive rookie season, earning Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors along the way. His production never matched the level of that 2018 campaign, but the Boise State alum nevertheless remained a full-time starter throughout the rest of his Cowboys tenure. One year remains on Vander Esch’s contract, and he is set to carry a cap hit of $4.4MM.

As Hill notes, overhauling the linebacking corps will be a priority for the Cowboys with or without Vander Esch in the picture. The team was gashed on the ground several times in 2023, including the wild-card loss to the Packers. Dallas has 2022 fifth-rounder Damone Clark on his rookie contract for two more years. DeMarvion Overshown – taken in the third round of last year’s draft – generated high expectations for his performances in training camp but missed his rookie season due to an ACL tear. A healthy campaign could see him handle a notable workload. Former UDFA Markquese Bell will also be in the fold for next season.

Dallas is currently over the 2024 salary cap, but a Dak Prescott extension and other cost-cutting moves will help give the team financial breathing space. Free agency could be an important avenue for the Cowboys to pursue LB help, given the absence of first-round prospects at the position amongst this year’s draft class. Day 2 and 3 additions in April would come as no surprise, though, especially if Vander Esch does indeed retire.

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