Leighton Vander Esch

Cowboys Activate NT Johnathan Hankins

JANUARY 16: Hankins is back in uniform for the Cowboys. The team activated the veteran defensive tackle from IR ahead of its Monday wild-card matchup. Hankins, whom the Cowboys acquired from the Raiders days before the trade deadline, has been out since Week 14.

JANUARY 11: The Cowboys could be getting some defensive reinforcement in time for their showdown with the Buccaneers. Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reports (via Twitter) that nose tackle Johnathan Hankins was designated for return today.

That means Hankins’ 21-day practice window officially started today. Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Cowboys are still in the postseason in 21 days. So, most likely, the Cowboys are preparing for the nose tackle to be on the field for Monday’s game against the Buccaneers, a sentiment that Gehlken echoes.

A pectoral strain forced Hankins to the injured reserve in December, but assuming he’s back this season, he’ll ultimately have missed the minimum four required games.

“I feel good. I feel like I could’ve been back sooner but, with the [IR] rules, I had to be out four weeks,” Hankins said today (via the team’s website). “But I’m not mad about it, it just gave me more time to get my body right and ready for the playoffs…The time is now.”

In October, Hankins was traded with a seventh-round pick from the Raiders to the Cowboys for a sixth-round selection. The 30-year-old got into five games (three starts) for his new squad, collecting 10 tackles. Hankins previously spent time with the Giants, Colts, and Raiders, including an eight-year stretch where he started 116 of his 117 games.

The Cowboys got some more positive injury news today. Gehlken passes along that center Tyler Biadasz and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch both returned to practice today.

Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch Expected To Return This Season

The Cowboys will be without a key defender for today’s crucial game against the Eagles, but their linebacking corps should be healthier in the near future. Leighton Vander Esch is inactive for Week 16, though his latest injury is not expected to be season-ending.

[RELATED: Cowboys’ Sam Williams To Miss Week 16]

The veteran exited Dallas’ loss to Jacksonville last Sunday, leading to concerns about another potential neck injury. That issue cost him significant time in 2019, but the diagnosis is more encouraging this time around. Vander Esch is dealing with a shoulder stinger, and his neck is entirely unaffected (Twitter link via Ian Rapoport of NFL Network).

As a result, the 26-year-old is not facing a season-ending absence as he has previously. That is a significant development for the Cowboys, given his importance to their defense. Vander Esch has seen his snap share rise to 79% in 2022, following two straight seasons of decline in that regard. He had played – and started – every contest this year prior to today’s absence. The former first-rounder has totaled a team-leading 90 tackles on the year, the second-highest mark of his career behind only his Pro Bowl rookie campaign.

His play against the run in particular earned Vander Esch interest in a new deal from the Cowboys this past offseason. Dallas had declined his fifth-year option, allowing him to hit free agency for the first time in his career. The Boise State product re-signed on a one-year, $2MM contract to remain with the team. He has proven to be worth that investment this season, serving as an effective role player on a Cowboys defense which ranks eighth in yards allowed and seventh in points against entering today’s action.

While defensive coordinator Dan Quinn stated (via Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News, on Twitter) that Vander Esch will return at some point this season, it remains unclear when that time will come. A loss today would clinch the NFC East title for the Eagles, leaving the final two games of the season a matter of positioning amongst the conference’s other Wild Card teams for the Cowboys. Assuming he is healthy for the beginning of the postseason, at least, though, Vander Esch will once again have an important role to play in January.

Anthony Barr On Cowboys’ Radar

Anthony Barr has gone through a quiet offseason. Nearly five months after his Vikings contract expired, the eight-year Minnesota starter remains a free agent. The former UCLA pass rusher may have a landing spot in Dallas, however.

Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones said Barr remains on the team’s radar, despite the defending NFC East champions having begun their training campa already. Jabril Cox‘s health looks to pertain to the team’s course of action with Barr, via Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Cox suffered a torn ACL midway through his rookie season, but the Cowboys have been impressed enough with the LSU product’s recovery they did not place him on the active/PUP list to begin camp. Dallas rookie linebacker Damone Clark, however, is not expected to play until at least late this season. The fifth-round pick underwent spinal fusion surgery in March. Cox could push the recently re-signed Leighton Vander Esch for a starting spot, per Hill.

The team also, of course, has Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons at the position. Parsons is expected to continue as a hybrid performer, aiding the Cowboys’ pass rush. That would make for an interesting fit alongside Barr, a college pass rusher who has been used sporadically in that capacity as a pro (17.5 career sacks) as well. The Cowboys also signed former third-round pick Malik Jefferson earlier this month.

Jones’ comments, however, come after the Dallas Morning News’ Calvin Watkins indicated (via Twitter) Barr was no longer in the team’s plans. Barr, 30, has not been connected to any other teams this offseason. The four-time Pro Bowler has also missed time due to injuries in each of the past two years, going down with a torn pectoral muscle in September 2020 — an injury that led to a 2021 pay cut — and missing six games last season. A knee injury led to a four-game absence to start last year. The former top-10 pick finished the year with 72 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.

Contract Details: Winston, Ward, Fournette, Conklin, Jones, Jewell, Vander Esch

Here are the latest details from recently agreed-upon contracts around the NFL:

  • Charvarius Ward, CB (49ers): Three years, $40.5MM. Of Ward’s $26.7MM in guarantees, $12MM comes via a signing bonus, Brad Spielberger of Pro Football Focus tweets. The 49ers will keep Ward’s initial cap hit low, with his 2022 figure checking in at $3.8MM. That spikes to $16.3MM in 2023. Two void years are included in Ward’s deal, giving the 49ers a cap charge of $4.81MM in 2025.
  • Jameis Winston, QB (Saints): Two years, $28MM. Winston received a $14MM signing bonus and has a $1.2MM fully guaranteed 2022 base salary, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk notes. $5.8MM of Winston’s $12.8MM 2023 base salary is presently guaranteed for injury; it will become fully guaranteed on Day 3 of the 2023 league year. Winston can earn up to $16MM in incentives, $8MM in each year, through team accomplishments — as long as Winston is the Saints’ primary starter — and participation rate.
  • Leonard Fournette, RB (Buccaneers): Three years, $21MM. Along with a $4.5MM signing bonus, the Bucs fully guaranteed Fournette’s 2022 base salary ($2MM) and $2MM of his $6.5MM 2023 base, Florio notes. Another $2MM of that amount turns from an injury guarantee to a full guarantee next year. Fournette’s $6.5MM 2024 base is nonguaranteed. Among the deal’s $1.5MM in incentives, which only cover 2023 and 2024, Fournette can collect $250K for finishing a season in the top 15 in rushing yards and $500K for a top-10 rushing finish.
  • Tyler Conklin, TE (Jets): Three years, $20.25MM. The Jets are guaranteeing Conklin $10MM, including $3.9MM of his 2023 base salary. Conklin’s cap hits go $3.4MM, $8.4MM, $8.4MM from 2022-24, Spielberger tweets.
  • Ben Jones, C (Titans): Two years, $14MM. Jones will see $8MM guaranteed, which comes via $6.88MM signing bonus and a guaranteed $1.12MM 2022 base salary, Aaron Wilson of ProFootballNetwork.com tweets. Jones’ deal includes a $1MM roster bonus due on Day 5 of the 2023 league year. His 2023 base salary comes in at $5MM.
  • Josey Jewell, LB (Broncos): Two years, $11MM. The Broncos guaranteed Jewell $6MM, which is present through a $4MM signing bonus and a $1.5MM 2022 base salary, Wilson tweets. His nonguaranteed 2023 base comes in at $4.49MM. An additional $1MM in incentives are also available for the four-year veteran.
  • Leighton Vander Esch, LB (Cowboys): One year, $2MM. The Cowboys are guaranteeing $1.75MM and included an additional $1MM in playing-time incentives, Ari Meirov of PFF tweets.

Cowboys To Re-Sign Leighton Vander Esch

The Cowboys are keeping Leighton Vander Esch. On Friday, the linebacker agreed to a brand new one-year deal (Twitter link via NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport). It’s a one-year, $2MM pact, Albert Breer of SI.com tweets.

[RELATED: Cowboys Re-Sign Armstrong]

LVE was a first-round pick of the Cowboys in 2018, but they declined to pick up his fifth-year option. That put him on course for free agency this week, though the Cowboys were still interested in bringing him back — just at a lower rate.

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, in 2020, he finished with just 60 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and zero passes defended in ten contests. This past season, he notched 77 stops, one sack, and one interception, showing that he still has something to offer as a coverage linebacker.

This year, LVE will try to reassert himself in the Cowboys’ pecking order. After playing on more than 75% of the snaps in his first two years, Vander Esch dropped to 67% in 2020 and just 58% of snaps in 2021.

Cowboys Re-Sign WR Michael Gallup

The Cowboys will avoid letting wide receiver Michael Gallup hit the free agent market after to a five-year, $57.5MM deal, according to Tom Pelissero of NFL Network (on Twitter). After trading away Amari Cooper earlier this week, this moves cements that Dallas’s other three top pass catchers will be returning for the 2022 NFL season.

Gallup, 26, will collect $23MM in guarantees, with Pelissero noting this contract will max out at $62.5MM. A nice payday for Cooper’s former sidekick, whom the Cowboys have chosen over their four-year WR1.

A third-round pick out of Colorado State in 2018, Gallup broke out for 1,107 yards in 2019 alongside Cooper. The arrival of CeeDee Lamb in 2020 limited his production to a still impressive 843 yards as a number three receiver. Even in an injury-plagued 2021 season, Gallup enjoyed glimpses of success.

This news has been in the works for a while now with estimates that the Cowboys were aiming for a five-year pact with an annual average value around $10MM, but that Gallup’s camp may possibly having been pushing for a shorter commitment. Either the rumors about Gallup’s camp have been proven untrue or an annual average value of nearly $12MM was too enticing to turn down.

Regardless, the long-term, decently priced deal is a strong commitment to Gallup after he only played in nine games of his contract year due to a Week 1 calf injury and a season-ending ACL tear in Week 16. The contract seems to indicate that the Cowboys are confident in the medical information they are receiving on Gallup’s recovery.

With decisions made on Cooper and Gallup, and the franchise tag placed on Dalton Schultz, Dallas can focus its attention on the litany of other impact players set to hit the free agent market this week like Randy Gregory, Connor Williams, Leighton Vander Esch and Cedrick Wilson.

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.

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.

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.

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.