FRISCO, Texas (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys declined the fifth-year option on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's rookie contract Monday, setting up an interesting season at the position after the club used this year's first-round pick on a potential replacement.
Vander Esch had a strong rookie season after the Cowboys drafted him 19th overall in 2018. But injuries limited him to 19 games the past two years, most notably the revelation that the former Boise State player has always had spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that makes neck injuries more risky.
The 25-year-old was due to make $9.1 million in 2022. Vander Esch has a $2.1 million base salary in the fourth year of his $11.8 million rookie contract.
Declining the option doesn't mean Vander Esch won't return to the Cowboys. Cornerback Morris Claiborne re-signed for less money in 2016 after Dallas declined his fifth-year option.
Executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said on his radio show Monday the club wants to keep Vander Esch longer term, saying the salary cap dictated the decision to decline the option.
Vander Esch and 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith are both on notice after the Cowboys drafted Penn State's Micah Parsons 12th overall and Jabril Cox of LSU in the fourth round.
After leading Dallas with a rookie-record 176 tackles and making the Pro Bowl in 2018, Vander Esch started having trouble with injuries in the seventh game of his second season when he injured his neck against Philadelphia. Vander Esch missed a game and returned for two before doctors recommended he sit the rest of the season and have surgery.
The neck wasn't an issue last season, but Vander Esch broke his collarbone in the opener and missed the next four games. His production was inconsistent when he returned, and Vander Esch missed the final two games with a sprained ankle.
Smith has had similar issues with consistency since the Cowboys took a chance on him just four months after a devastating knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame. He didn't play as a rookie, but has been a full-time starter the past three years.
The 25-year-old Smith signed a $64 million, five-year extension in 2019, but can be released without much impact on the salary cap starting next year.
The Cowboys traded down two spots to get Parsons after both cornerbacks they were targeting, Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn, went before Dallas' original position at No. 10. Cox was considered a high-value pick in the fourth round.