After looking set to be the future of the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie, LB Leighton Vander Esch appears set to be a free agent in the 2022 offseason. How has Vander Esch performed in his career, what sort of value could we expect to see, and where are his potential landing spots this offseason?
Leighton Vander Esch landing spots
If you think back to the 2018 season, Vander Esch was the toast of the town in Dallas. As a rookie, the LB racked up 140 combined tackles and made himself a star alongside Jaylon Smith in that defense. Now, as we head into the 2022 offseason, Smith is gone and Vander Esch looks unlikely to remain in Dallas — unless a market elsewhere does not emerge.
As a rookie, the warning signs were there for Vander Esch. While he was a tackling machine, he was somewhat of a liability in coverage. Opposing QBs completed 72 of their 90 attempts when targeting Vander Esch and scored 3 touchdowns against him. Vander Esch capitalized a couple of times with 2 interceptions, but ultimately he allowed a 96.4 passer rating against as a rookie.
Those struggles continued in the next two seasons. Vander Esch allowed a 112 passer rating in 2019 when targeted and a 99.2 passer rating in 2020. Injuries limited his opportunities, but his coverage issues also started to lead to a reduction in his snaps. As a rookie, he played 77% of the snaps, rising to 85% in 2019. That fell to 67% in 2020 and 58% in 2021.
His performance in coverage did improve from 2019 to 2020 and then to 2021, but likely not significant enough to make him in high demand this offseason.
What sort of value could Vander Esch be looking at?
The market for Vander Esch is going to be fascinating. Watching him his rookie season, many thought he could be one of the highest-paid LBs when he was eligible. That has now faded into oblivion, and now the debate is how long a team might be willing to commit to him. From a health perspective, he was able to play a full season in 2021 after managing just 19 games between 2019 and 2020.
However, it feels like he may need to take a one-year, $2 million prove-it contract similar to the one signed by De’Vondre Campbell last offseason. Concerns over his coverage abilities also blighted Campbell’s value. However, he largely put those concerns to bed with the Packers this year. That path might be the one Vander Esch has to take — a change of scenery on a one-year deal, hoping to boost his value for 2023. Let’s examine which teams might be potential landing spots for Vander Esch this offseason.
The Packers look set to lose Campbell and are tight in terms of cap space
The Packers have the perfect pitch for Vander Esch this offseason. “Come play in Green Bay, and you could boost your value in a similar way that we helped Campbell do so last year.” The Packers would need that pitch to work because, from a cap space perspective, they are up against it. They would essentially need Vander Esch to come in at close to minimum and load the contract with incentives to make it work.
From Vander Esch’s perspective, this option would not be high on his list. He would hope his improvements in coverage over the past two years — plus his tackling prowess — would be enough to convince a team to offer more. However, he could certainly do a lot worse this offseason than gambling on himself in Green Bay and having the chance to go win a Super Bowl. How attractive a proposal this is will likely hinge on what looks to be happening with Rodgers in Green Bay this offseason.
The Patriots have two of their leading tacklers set to be free agents this offseason
The Patriots’ list of pending free agents is littered with linebackers. Included in that are Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley. The Patriots were eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday in part because of their inability to stop Josh Allen and the Bills’ running game. With the Patriots going up against Allen at least twice a year for the foreseeable future, they need to consider how they will counter him and his athleticism.
That is where Vander Esch could be an intriguing proposition and a perfect fit in some ways. The Patriots have tended not to worry too much about how their middle LB fares in coverage. They have a litany of hybrid linebacker/safety types that they use in those coverage roles. Their focus has tended to be on having a solid tackler in that role. Vander Esch would fit that mold perfectly and likely come at a major discount to Bentley. Meanwhile, it allows them to get younger at the position if they replace Hightower.
Vander Esch could be an intriguing presence in the Denver Broncos’ defense
The Broncos have a lot of questions to answer this offseason. That really starts with their new head coach and what scheme he and his defensive coordinator bring to the team. Still, regardless of who comes in, one area of the defense they will have to look at is linebacker.
Kenny Young, Micah Kiser, Josey Jewell, and Alexander Johnson are all set to be free agents this offseason. That leaves the Broncos with Baron Browning and Justin Strnad as potential starters next year. While both have flashed, there is a void in terms of experience there. If the Broncos decide to go for a cheaper option at linebacker, Vander Esch could be that option in free agency. It would not be an exciting option, but it would give the Broncos a strong tackler in the middle of their defense.
A return to the Cowboys is not out of the question this offseason
It is not a foregone conclusion that Vander Esch will leave the Cowboys. Nonetheless, given the Cowboys’ cap space situation, the most likely reason he would head back is that a market did not emerge elsewhere. Vander Esch is a talented enough tackler where a team like the Patriots or Broncos would likely be willing to offer enough to cause the Cowboys to have to look elsewhere.
Don’t rule out a return, but it seems like we might be seeing Vander Esch in a different uniform in 2022 and beyond. A return to the Cowboys seems like a more beneficial situation for Dallas than for Vander Esch. The best chance of progressing his career feels like it is probably away from Dallas at this point.