On a night where they suffered a brutal blow to their offense, the Dallas Cowboys also lost a key starter on the defensive side of the ball. Coming off an injury-shortened campaign, Leighton Vander Esch entered the 2020 NFL season seeking to rediscover his rookie-year form. However, the talented linebacker suffered a significant setback to his comeback story in Sunday’s season-opening loss to the LA Rams.
Now, Dallas must find a way to plug a huge hole on a defense that already suffered a devastating loss just a month ago.
Leighton Vander Esch missed most of 2019 after a strong rookie season
Following a terrific college career at Boise State, Leighton Vander Esch entered the 2018 NFL draft as one of the top linebacker prospects. Tipping the scales at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds with 4.65 speed, his physical tools gave NFL scouts plenty of optimism about his ability to become a star.
The Cowboys selected Vander Esch with the 18th overall pick. Though he failed to beat out Jaylon Smith for the starting inside linebacker job, an injury to Sean Lee gave Vander Esch the opportunity he needed.
By the time he wrapped up his rookie season, the Idaho native racked up 140 tackles, two interceptions, and seven passes defended. For his efforts, Vander Esch earned a Pro Bowl berth and second-team All-Pro selection.
However, after getting off to a roaring start last season, the talented linebacker suffered a career setback. A nerve issue in his neck required surgery and ended Vander Esch’s season after just nine games played.
Dallas suffers another devastating loss on defense
After finishing the 2019 season on injured reserve, Leighton Vander Esch looked to resume his strong play this year. The Cowboys appeared to be in good hands on defense with Vander Esch and Smith playing behind a stacked defensive line.
Yet, the 24-year-old could not make it through one game before experiencing another injury. During Sunday night’s season-opening loss to the Rams, Vander Esch left the game with a collarbone injury and did not return.
On Monday, Ian Rapoport reported via Twitter that the 2018 first-round pick broke his collarbone. Vander Esch will undergo surgery and is expected to return to action in six to eight weeks. Though his season isn’t over, the injury represents another painful career setback for a player teeming with potential and a devastating loss to a defense that has been built around its two young linebackers.
Vander Esch’s absence creates a huge hole in a unit that allowed 422 total yards in Sunday’s defeat. Now, it will be up to Jerry Jones and Mike McCarthy to devise a way to get by while the promising linebacker recovers.
How will Dallas replace the talented linebacker?
With Leighton Vander Esch out of the lineup, Dallas has to find a capable replacement to take over his starting spot. So who might McCarthy turn to?
If the Cowboys want to go with an internal replacement, veteran Joe Thomas looks like the favorite to line up next to Smith. He has been with the team since 2018 and drew two starts last season. Thomas recorded five tackles against the Rams but does not offer anywhere near the upside as a healthy Vander Esch.
Should Dallas look to the free-agent market, a few players could entice Jerry Jones into making a phone call. Todd Davis got released by the Denver Broncos just 10 days ago and still has not found a new NFL home. The veteran linebacker started 63 games for the Broncos and recorded 134 tackles in 2019.
Dallas could also take a look at Darron Lee, who went 20th overall in the 2016 NFL draft. He spent last season with the Kansas City Chiefs after starting his career with the New York Jets. The speedy linebacker could help ease the loss of Vander Esch, though his lack of size could prove problematic.
Ultimately, the Cowboys will get Leighton Vander Esch back at some point. But given his injury history, it seems risky to bank on him surviving the season without suffering another painful career setback. Let’s see if Dallas survives without No. 55 in the lineup, or if the team falls behind quickly in the race for the NFC East.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.