Leighton Vander Esch

Cowboys Not Planning To Extend Any Impending Free Agents Before 2022

Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones recently expressed regret for the way the team handled Dak Prescott‘s extension, which became a three-offseason saga. The quarterback’s $40MM-per-year contract will now have some effects on the way the Cowboys do business.

Although the Cowboys might circle back to extension talks for the likes of Michael Gallup, Randy Gregory or Leighton Vander Esch, the team will not discuss deals for the free agents-to-be in 2021, Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News notes. The team has closed up shop on extension talks with its impending free agents, a group that also includes guard Connor Williams and tight end Dalton Schultz.

Gallup, Gregory and Vander Esch profile as the team’s top three 2022 free agents. Each could be elsewhere next season, depending on their respective performances this year. Dallas’ upcoming free agent crop does not bring the kind of high-stakes drama of recent offseasons, when the team either doled out big-ticket extensions (in the cases of Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence) or stood down (in the case of Prescott). But Gallup and Gregory could enhance their value with quality contract-year performances, making the Cowboys pay more come 2022 — if they view the starters as long-term pieces.

Cooper’s status will affect Gallup’s. It appears the team recognizes there is only room for one of the two on its 2022 squad, with Gehlken adding that the team expects Gallup to see a big market as a free agent. Cooper’s $20MM-AAV contract becomes easy to shed next year, with the Cowboys saving $16MM in cap space and taking just a $6MM dead-money hit if they cut the former trade acquisition. Cooper, 27, is two years older than Gallup. An either/or scenario creates an interesting subplot for the Cowboys’ passing attack this season.

The Cowboys making Gregory prove it is logical, though they did extend the talented defensive end through 2021 despite his persistent off-field issues. Gregory will be 29 by the time his contract expires, and the former second-round pick has been suspended four times during his career. He is, however, set to be a full-time starter for the first time. This season stands to make a major impact on Gregory’s value ahead of what could be his only notable contract agreement.

Dallas may enter an either/or situation at linebacker soon. The team is set to deploy first-round pick Micah Parsons this year, potentially leaving Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith to vie for a slot alongside him in 2022. The Cowboys did not pick up Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, due to his injury troubles. Shedding Smith’s deal next year would saddle the Cowboys with $6.8MM in dead money. How Vander Esch performs this year, and his health status exiting the season, will largely determine his free agency value.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch Drawing Trade Interest

The Cowboys have received calls on Leighton Vander Esch (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Jane Slater). However, the Cowboys are not interested in trading the young linebacker. 

The Cowboys declined to pick up LVE’s fifth-year option earlier this year, so he’s set to be a free agent next spring. Still, the Boise State product and former first-rounder is still in their future plans. If all goes well this year, the Cowboys could even re-up Vander Esch with a long-term extension.

Picking up the option would’ve given LVE a fully guaranteed $9.145MM for 2022. Despite his talent, that’s a steep price for a player who has missed 13 games over the past two seasons. Meanwhile, the Cowboys invested a ’21 first-round pick in fellow ‘backer Micah Parsons, so they’re not exactly sold on Vander Esch and his long-term outlook.

Vander Esch made the Pro Bowl and the second-team All-Pro team as a rookie in 2018 That year, the No. 19 overall pick notched 140 tackles, seven passes defended, and two interceptions. But, last year, he finished with just 60 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and zero passes defended in ten contests.

Still, lots of teams can see a bright future for the 25-year-old. That includes the Cowboys, who plan to hold on to him for 2021.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Cowboys Decline Leighton Vander Esch’s Option

Another big name player is getting his option turned down. The Cowboys have informed Leighton Vander Esch‘s agent that they won’t be picking up the fifth-year option on the linebacker, Jane Slater of NFL Network tweets.

That means Vander Esch is now set to be a free agent after this season. What it doesn’t mean however is that the Cowboys no longer view the Boise State product in their future plans. Instead, Slater writes that the decision was “due to ongoing salary-cap uncertainty” and that the Cowboys “instead hope to sign Leighton to a contract extension before his current deal expires.”

Picking up the option would’ve fully guaranteed LVE $9.145MM for 2022, a steep price considering he’s missed 13 games due to injury the past two seasons. Dallas drafting Micah Parsons in the first-round this past week provided the writing on the wall for this decision, even if the team insists they still want to keep Vander Esch around.

Vander Esch was the 19th overall pick of the 2018 draft. He made the Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro as a rookie, but his last two seasons have been disappointing.

As a rookie, he had 140 tackles, seven passes defended, and two interceptions. In 2020 he had only 60 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and no passes defended in 10 games. He only turned 25 in February, and will have the chance to secure an even bigger payday if he can have a strong 2021 campaign.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Cowboys VP: Micah Parsons Pick Doesn’t Impact LVE’s Option

When the Cowboys’ preferred cornerbacks were off the board, they pivoted to Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Despite the speculation, Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones says that the pick doesn’t necessarily rule out Leighton Vander Esch beyond 2021. 

I don’t think it affects it,” Jones said (via the Cowboys’ website). “We’ll make a decision on Leighton — we’ll make that decision when the time comes. We’ve got some discussions to have on that, period.”

The Cowboys have a few more days — and six more rounds of the draft — before they have to make their call on LVE’s fifth-year option. The Cowboys can extend the linebacker’s contract for an extra year at a rate of $9.145MM in 2022. Of course, that add-on would be fully guaranteed, which may give the Cowboys pause in light of Vander Esch’s injury history.

Over the last two seasons, Vander Esch has missed a combined 13 games. Still, he’s remained a productive part of the starting lineup when healthy. Last year, the 25-year-old finished out with 60 stops, one sack, and one forced fumble in ten games.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

2022 NFL Fifth-Year Option Tracker

NFL teams have until May 3 to officially pick up their options on 2018 first-rounders who are entering the final year of their rookie deals. In a change from years past, fifth-year option seasons are fully guaranteed, rather than guaranteed for injury only. Meanwhile, salaries are now determined by a blend of the player’s position, initial draft placement, and specific performance metrics:

  • 2-time Pro Bowlers (excluding alternate Pro Bowlers) will earn the same as their position’s franchise tag.
  • 1-time Pro Bowlers will earn the equivalent of the transition tag.
  • Players who achieve any of the following will get the average of the 3rd-20th highest salaries at their position:
    • 75%+ snaps in two of their first three seasons
    • 75%+ average across all three seasons
    • 50%+ in each of first three seasons
  • Players who do not hit any of those benchmarks will get the average of the 3rd-25th top salaries at their position.

With the deadline looming, we’ll use the space below to track all the option decisions from around the league:

Updated 4-30-21, 4:24pm CT

  1. QB Baker Mayfield, Browns: Exercised ($18.858MM)
  2. RB Saquon Barkley, Giants: Exercised ($7.217MM)
  3. QB Sam Darnold, Panthers (via Jets): Pending ($18.858MM)
  4. CB Denzel Ward, Browns — Exercised ($13.294MM)
  5. LB Bradley Chubb, Broncos — Pending ($12.716MM)
  6. G Quenton Nelson, Colts — Pending ($13.754MM)
  7. QB Josh Allen, Bills: Pending ($23.106MM)
  8. LB Roquan Smith, Bears: Exercised ($9.735MM)
  9. OT Mike McGlinchey, 49ers: Exercised ($10.88MM)
  10. QB Josh Rosen, Cardinals: N/A
  11. S Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers (via Dolphins): Exercised ($10.612MM)
  12. DT Vita Vea, Buccaneers: Exercised ($7.638MM)
  13. DT Daron Payne, Washington — Exercised ($8.529MM)
  14. DE Marcus Davenport, Saints: Exercised ($9.553MM)
  15. OT Kolton Miller, Raiders — N/A (extension)
  16. LB Tremaine Edmunds, Bills: Pending ($12.716MM)
  17. S Derwin James, Chargers: Exercised ($9.052MM)
  18. CB Jaire Alexander, Packers: Exercised ($13.294MM)
  19. LB Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys: Pending ($9.145MM)
  20. C Frank Ragnow, Lions: Exercised ($12.657MM)
  21. C Billy Price, Bengals: Declined ($10.413MM)
  22. LB Rashaan Evans, Titans: Pending ($9.735MM)
  23. OT Isaiah Wynn, Patriots: Pending ($10.413 MM)
  24. WR D.J. Moore, Panthers: Exercised ($11.116MM)
  25. TE Hayden Hurst, Falcons (via Ravens): Pending ($5.428MM)
  26. WR Calvin Ridley, Falcons: Pending ($11.116MM)
  27. RB Rashaad Penny, Seahawks: Pending ($4.523MM)
  28. S Terrell Edmunds, Steelers: Pending ($6.753MM)
  29. DT Taven Bryan, Jaguars: Pending ($7.638MM)
  30. CB Mike Hughes, Vikings: Pending ($12.643MM)
  31. RB Sony Michel, Patriots: Pending ($4.523MM)
  32. QB Lamar Jackson, Ravens: Exercised ($23.106MM)

NFL’s Fifth-Year Option Salaries For 2021

The NFL’s 2021 salary cap has been set at $182.5MM, marking the league’s first reduction in a decade. With that, the league has also ironed out the value of this year’s fifth-round option for 2018 first-round picks.

Here’s the full rundown, via NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero (on Twitter):

1. Baker Mayfield, Browns, QB — $18.858MM (playing time)

2. Saquon Barkley, Giants, RB — $7.217MM (1x Pro Bowl)

3. Sam Darnold, Jets, QB — $18.858MM (playing time)

4. Denzel Ward, Browns, CB — $13.294MM (1x Pro Bowl)

5. Bradley Chubb, Broncos, LB — $12.716MM (1x Pro Bowl)

6. Quenton Nelson, Colts, G — $13.754MM (2x Pro Bowl)

7. Josh Allen, Bills, QB — $23.106MM (1x Pro Bowl)

8. Roquan Smith, Bears, LB — $9.735MM (playing time)

9. Mike McGlinchey, 49ers, OT — $10.88MM (playing time)

10. Josh Rosen, Cardinals, QB*

11. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers, S (drafted by Dolphins) — $10.612MM (2x Pro Bowl)

12. Vita Vea, Buccaneers, DT — $7.638MM

13. Daron Payne, Washington, DT — $8.529MM (playing time)

14. Marcus Davenport, Saints, DE — $9.553MM

15. Kolton Miller, Raiders, OT — $10.88MM (playing time)

16. Tremaine Edmunds, Bills, LB — $12.716MM (1x Pro Bowl)

17. Derwin James, Chargers, S — $9.052MM (1x Pro Bowl)

18. Jaire Alexander, Packers, CB — $13.294MM (1x Pro Bowl)

19. Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys, LB — $9.145MM

20. Frank Ragnow, Lions, C — $12.657MM (1x Pro Bowl)

21. Billy Price, Bengals, C — $10.413MM

22. Rashaan Evans, Titans, LB — $9.735MM (playing time)

23. Isaiah Wynn, Patriots, OT — $10.413MM

24. D.J. Moore, Panthers, WR — $11.116MM (playing time)

25. Hayden Hurst, Falcons, TE (Drafted by Ravens) — $5.428MM

26. Calvin Ridley, Falcons, WR — $11.116MM (playing time)

27. Rashaad Penny, Seahawks, RB — $4.523MM

28., Steelers, S Terrell Edmunds — $6.753MM (playing time)

29. Taven Bryan, Jaguars, DT — $7.638MM

30. Mike Hughes, Vikings, CB — $12.643MM

31. Sony Michel, Patriots, RB — $4.523MM

32. Lamar Jackson, Ravens, QB — $23.106MM (1x Pro Bowl)

* Rosen was released from his original contract and, therefore, is not option-eligible 

As a refresher, the fifth-year option year is now fully guaranteed. In the past, it was guaranteed for injury only. The values are also dependent on certain performance metrics:

  • Two-time Pro Bowlers (excluding alternate Pro Bowlers) will earn the same as their position’s franchise tag.
  • One-time Pro Bowlers will earn the equivalent of the transition tag.
  • Players who achieve any of the following will get the average of the 3rd-20th highest salaries at their position:
    • 75%+ snaps in two of their first three seasons
    • 75%+ average across all three seasons
    • 50%+ in each of first three seasons
  • Players who do not hit any of those benchmarks will get the average of the 3rd-25th top salaries at their position.

NFC East Notes: Haskins, Cowboys, Eagles

Dwayne Haskins‘ standing in the Washington organization has plummeted tremendously since the previous regime drafted him 15th overall last year. He is now the team’s third-string quarterback, with both Kyle Allen and Alex Smith leapfrogging him on the depth chart, and trade rumors have emerged. Haskins has clearly not impressed Washington’s coaching staff, and John Keim of ESPN.com notes last year’s staff took issue with the one-year Ohio State sensation as well. Both staffs have communicated concerns about Haskins’ work ethic to the quarterback. This concern surfaced early during Haskins’ rookie season, one that ended with the young passer ranking last in QBR by a considerable margin. Haskins has not made a trade request, and Washington has yet to field any trade calls on him, Keim adds. Although Ron Rivera has publicly backed Haskins, Keim notes both sides appear prepared to move on after one of the quicker auditions for a first-round quarterback in recent history.

Here is the latest from the NFC East:

  • Leighton Vander Esch is progressing closer to beating his recovery timetable. The Cowboys linebacker saw his first post-injury work in pads Friday, and NFL.com’s Jane Slater tweets the third-year defender could well be activated ahead of Monday’s game against the Cardinals. The Cowboys placed Vander Esch on IR after Week 1 because of a broken collarbone. Given a six- to eight-week timetable, Vander Esch returning Monday would mean a mere four-game absence. That would obviously be encouraging for a player who has seen injuries stall his promising career.
  • The Eagles‘ offensive line resides as one of the NFL’s most decimated position groups. Jason Peters, Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo are on IR. The team declared Pro Bowl right tackle Lane Johnson out for Week 6 with an ankle injury. While Johnson’s injury is not expected to require surgery, per the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane (on Twitter), he will rest it this week against the Ravens. Although Johnson not needing surgery represents good news, the Eagles are down to one original starter — center Jason Kelce — in their lineup against a top-tier Ravens defense.
  • One of the Eagles’ defensive depth pieces returned to practice this week. The Eagles opened Will Parks‘ 21-day activation window. The fifth-year safety has yet to debut for his hometown team. The Eagles placed Parks on IR before Week 1 because of a hamstring injury and have until 4pm CT Saturday to activate him for Week 6.
  • The Cowboys worked out defensive tackle Gabe Wright on Friday. Wright has not played in a regular-season game since the 2018 season. The former fourth-round pick has spent each of his four seasons with a different team — the Lions, Browns, Dolphins and Raiders. The team only has two defensive linemen on its practice squad.

East Notes: Cowboys, Prescott, Jets, Gase

Dak Prescott is obviously out for the season with his brutal ankle injury, and speculation immediately turned to his future with the Cowboys due to the fact that he’s set to be a free agent at the end of the year. Prescott and the front office have been in a stalemate over his contract for a while, and the injury only further complicates things. Despite the lack of commitment, team VP Stephen Jones emphatically shot down any talk of parting ways during an appearance on 105.3 The Fan on Monday, via Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News (Twitter link).

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. He’s our future. He’s special. If anyone can overcome anything, it would be Dak,” Jerry’s son said when asked if anything had changed in regard to Prescott being their quarterback of the future. Of course there’s not much else Jones could say the day after such a serious injury, but the strength of the assertion is still notable. The Cowboys certainly don’t seem like they have any intention of letting Prescott leave town, although of course a lot could change between now and next season. Meanwhile Adam Schefter of ESPN.com tweets that a source told him last night that Prescott’s surgery went “very well,” and was performed by the highly regarded foot and ankle doctor Gene Curry, who was brought in by the team’s orthopedist.

Here’s more from the league’s eastern divisions:

  • While things may seem pretty bleak for the Cowboys right now with their mounting injuries, we do have a dash of good news to pass along. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who broke his collarbone in the team’s opening loss to the Rams, appears to be nearing a return, according to Clarence Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Vander Esch has apparently been ramping up his activity, and returned to padded practice late last week. The initial timeframe on his injury was 6-8 weeks, and Hill writes that head coach Mike McCarthy says he’s ahead of schedule. It sounds like Vander Esch has a chance to return for Dallas’ upcoming Monday Night Football game against the Cardinals, and their struggling defense could certainly use him.
  • The Jets are now 0-5 on the year, and after watching two of his fellow winless head coaches get canned, it looks like Adam Gase is considering major changes. At his presser Monday Gase said he has “toyed” with the idea of giving up play-calling responsibilities on offense, and that “everything is on the table at this point,” via Connor Hughes of The Athletic (Twitter link). Running backs coach Jim Bob Cooter, who was the Lions’ offensive coordinator recently, and OC Dowell Loggains would be the natural candidates to hand off to. Gase has always called the plays during his head coaching career, so this would be a huge change for him.
  • Jets pass-catchers have been dropping like flies this season, and another one is about to hit the shelf. Gase revealed during the same presser that Chris Hogan suffered a high ankle sprain on Sunday and will be out for a while, Brian Costello of the New York Post tweets. The former Patriots deep threat is in his first season with New York and has been playing an increased role due to all the injuries. He’s had at least three catches in each of the past two weeks and had six for 75 yards back in Week 2. Fortunately for the Jets, they should be getting fellow receiver Breshad Perriman back soon from his own ankle injury.

Cowboys To Place Leighton Vander Esch On IR

Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch suffered a broken collarbone in Sunday’s loss to the Rams (Twitter link via Ian Rapoport of NFL.com). The Cowboys will place LVE on IR, though he’ll be able to return after 6-8 weeks.

[RELATED: Torn ACL For Cowboys TE Blake Jarwin]

Vander Esch went down in the first quarter of Sunday’s game, after notching three stops to open up the 2020 season. This is, unfortunately, familiar territory for the third-year ‘backer. Last year, a neck injury sidelined Vander Esch for seven games.

The Cowboys were – and still are – banking on big plays from Vander Esch, who earned a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie. In 2018, the Boise State product racked up 140 tackles and two interceptions. This year, new Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy planned to have the 24-year-old manage the defense from the inside of the linebacker formation. Now, Joe Thomas figures to step into his ILB role, with veteran Justin March serving as his primary backup.

Per the league’s modified IR rules, Vander Esch will be eligible to return after three weeks. However, his fractured collarbone will require a longer stint on the sidelines. It’s a tough break for the Cowboys, who have also placed veteran linebacker Sean Lee on IR.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

NFC East Notes: Eagles, Washington, Staff, Vander Esch

While the Eagles are not officially holding out hope Brandon Brooks can return late in the 2020 season, they have not shut that prospect down. They placed the Pro Bowl guard on the PUP list, rather than injured reserve. Lane Johnson said his longtime teammate is ahead of schedule and can see him returning from his latest Achilles tear before the season ends, Tim McManus of ESPN.com tweets. Brooks recovered from a January 2019 Achilles tear to return in time for Week 1 last season. Following the same timetable, Brooks could conceivably be in play for a late-December or January re-emergence. As players like Terrell Suggs and Michael Crabtree showed during the 2010s, an offseason Achilles tear is not an automatic season-ender. Of course, Brooks is carrying a bit more weight and suffered his injury later in the offseason. Longtime Eagles left tackle Jason Peters is currently manning Brooks’ right guard position.

As the NFC East teams begin their padded training camp practices, here is the latest from the division:

  • Doug Pederson is back at work after contracting COVID-19. The fifth-year Eagles HC was the third known coach to test positive for the coronavirus, following Sean Payton and Anthony Lynn. Unlike the Saints and Chargers coaches, Pederson, 52, was asymptomatic.
  • Leighton Vander Esch has been playing a new position at Cowboys camp. The third-year linebacker has swapped spots with Jaylon Smith, with Vander Esch now playing middle linebacker and Smith shifting to the weak side, Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram notes. Both players are set to reprise their roles as Dallas’ three-down ‘backers. The Cowboys changed defensive coordinators this offseason, moving from Rod Marinelli to Mike Nolan. Vander Esch is returning from offseason neck surgery.
  • Washington made a historic business-side hire, naming Jason Wright as team president. A former linebacker who played seven seasons with the Falcons, Browns and Cardinals, Wright is the NFL’s first Black team president and the fourth former player to be named to such a post. While the 38-year-old exec will succeed Bruce Allen, his responsibilities will be exclusively on the business side, John Keim of ESPN.com notes. Washington remains without a nominal GM.
  • The Cowboys will have a new voice in their quarterbacks room, at least for training camp. Seneca Wallace is working with Dallas’ QBs as a training camp staffer, Jon Machota of The Athletic tweets. Wallace joins fellow recent NFL passers Kellen Moore and Scott Tolzien on the Cowboys’ staff. Like Tolzien, Wallace spent time in Green Bay during Mike McCarthy‘s run.