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Why the Cowboys refusing to exercise Leighton Vander Esch’s fifth-year option is more of a reprieve than an ending

The addition of Micah Parsons will push either Vander Esch or Jaylon Smith off the roster next year. But the Cowboys declining to pick up the Wolf Hunter’s optiondoesn’t mean he’s the one to go.

The Cowboys’ refusal to exercise the fifth-year option on Leighton Vander Esch’s contract Monday wasn’t an ending.

It was more of a reprieve.

If Vander Esch were on solid ground, the club wouldn’t have blinked at the $9.145 million it cost to tie him down through the 2022 season. But to assume he’s the only linebacker on the hot seat heading into this season is shortsighted.

Jaylon Smith sits in that same chair. The only difference is he doesn’t have a May trigger in his contract to call attention to his precarious state.

Smith is two years deep into a five-year extension. But the contract is structured to let the Cowboys out of the deal at the end of this season with only $6.8 million in dead money, which is $5 million less than what Smith would consume if he’s on the roster in ’23.

But wait, you ask. If the team’s commitment is so tepid, why did it guarantee his base salary of $7.2 million for this season instead of moving on?

Here’s why: Two months ago, when the deadline for that decision came up, the front office had to take into account Vander Esch’s health and had no idea it would land Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in the draft. What if Vander Esch went down early in the season, as he did in last year’s opener, and the Cowboys failed to take a linebacker in the first two days of the draft?

Guaranteeing Smith’s base salary for ’21 wasn’t a vote of confidence as much as it was a cover your …

Well, you get the idea.

Vander Esch needs to return to the form he flashed his rookie season, not the injury-plagued downward spiral of the last two seasons when he’s missed 13 games. If he does, he should get the extension executive vice president Stephen Jones has said he would like to bestow.

Make no mistake. The addition of Parsons will push either Vander Esch or Smith off the roster early next year. But just because the Cowboys declined to pick up the Wolf Hunter’s option Monday doesn’t mean he’s the one to go.

Monday wasn’t a goodbye.

It was let’s wait and see.

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In This Story

David Moore, Cowboys Insider. David is in his 4th decade of covering sports on the DFW scene. You know what that means. He's old.

dmoore@dallasnews.com @DavidMooreDMN
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