At first glance, the notion that the Dallas Cowboys would trade Leighton Vander Esch seems counterproductive for several reasons. Vander Esch has been a tackling machine since being drafted in the first round of the 2018 draft. The Cowboys defense was historically bad this past year, but he’s one of the Pro-Bowl level talents that the team will be leaning on next season to turn things around under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
He’s also still on a rookie contract with a cap hit of roughly $3.7M in 2021 and could be extended for 5thseason for less than his true market value. In terms of cap space management, the Cowboys could work out a deal after the season if they choose to give him an extension that would make the heavier cap hit years out in the future when the cap grows as anticipated.
So, after all of those reasons why the Cowboys should keep their young, star linebacker, why should they trade Leighton Vander Esch?
The answer is Micah Parsons. Depending upon who’s mock draft you follow, it seems like Parsons may be available to the Cowboys at the 10th pick, although after his pro day his stock has been rising. He ran a 4.39 40-yard dash and a 34-inch vertical leap, which is unbelievably impressive at 6-3 and 244 pounds.Embed from Getty Images
A need for the Cowboys this offseason was to greatly improve their run defense, which Parsons would do immediately. He’s explosive at shooing gaps and his combination of size and speed help him to shed blocks. He’s solid in both zone and man coverage and could be an excellent man defender against their division rivals’ elite tight ends in Zack Ertz/Dallas Goedert, Evan Engram, and Logan Thomas. Let’s not overlook that the Cowboys have had success with Penn State linebackers in the past (Sean Lee). Parsons could also play a big factor in rushing the opposing quarterback with his speed.
Dan Quinn brought some of his favorite pieces with him from Atlanta, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, but one of the biggest playmakers from the Falcons who could not follow him to Dallas was linebacker Deion Jones. Jones who is 6-1 and 227 pounds was a speedster who was relied upon to cover ground quickly in zone and stick to tight ends in man coverage. He was also a tackle machine and contributed greatly against the run. Parsons is more similar in size to Vander Esch (who is 6-4 and 256 pounds), yet is even faster than Jones (who ran a 4.59 40-yard dash). He would be the ultimate tool for Quinn’s new defense.
Besides Parsons just being an upgrade to Vander Esch, why should the Cowboys choose to upgrade at that position over cornerback, defensive or offensive line?
Let’s start with injury history for Vander Esch. After appearing in all 16 games in 2018, he missed 7 games in 2019 due to a cervical neck stinger and 6 games in 2020 with a broken collarbone and an ankle injury. This doesn’t project well moving froward and after already signing Jaylon Smith to a large extension, are the Cowboys going to be open to having two highly paid linebackers?
Vander Esch still has one more year left on his rookie contract with a possible 5th year extension after that. His trade value will only decline moving forward, but right now you can offer a young linebacker that still has two low cost years ahead of him. Another team will be able to have him in their system for one or two years to see if the fit is right.
Trading Vander Esch would give the Cowboys the opportunity to gain extra draft picks for either 2021 or 2022. As the Dolphins are showing the rest of the league, this is the best way to quickly turn around a team and make sure that the roster has both talent and depth. Obviously, the Cowboys are not in the same position the Dolphins had been in for years, but do need to add depth and cheap talent given the rest of their big contracts.
If the Cowboys trade Leighton Vander Esch, what teams would be interested?
Seattle has valued linebackers very high compared to the rest of the league for years. Just look at Bobby Wagner’s 3-year extension worth $54M ($40.2M guaranteed). Although they already have Wagner, they appear to be letting KJ Wright go in free agency. They also have not valued draft picks as highly as other teams and should be willing to part with some draft capital in exchange for a Pro-Bowl caliber linebacker on a rookie contract, especially due to their trouble with the cap (i.e. releasing Jarran Reed).
New England Patriots:
We brought this up as a possible trade in an earlier article involving Stephon Gilmore. This would make even more sense if the Cowboys draft Parsons, since they would not be selecting a top corner at that spot. The Patriots would get a big, young, and cheap linebacker who would fit their system perfectly.
New York Jets:
Under new head coach Robert Saleh, the Jets are in need of young defensive leaders to build around. In a 4-3 scheme their current linebackers look to be CJ Mosely, Jarrad Davis, and Blake Cashman. Mosely sat out the 2020 season and only played in 2 games for the Jets in 2019. They would be able to land Vander Esch as the quarterback of their defense without losing out on top draft capital.
Also a potential suitor for Micah Parsons, the Dolphins would be interested in bringing in a big linebacker if they decide to go in a different direction with their 6th overall pick. Head coach Brian Flores is from Belichick’s system up in New England, which as discussed earlier highly values big, tackling machines in the heart of the defense (i.e. Dont’a Hightower). The Dolphins have loads of picks to work with to get the deal done.
Another head coach from the Belichick coaching tree, Mike Vrabel understands the importance of linebackers in New England’s system better than most considering that he was one. Running a 3-4 scheme, their linebackers are currently Harold Landry III and new additional Bud Dupree on the outside and Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown on the interior.
Brown, who is listed at 6-0 and 226 pounds, has overachieved since being a 5th round selection in 2017. He posted PFF scores of 81.2 in 2018, 71.6 in 2019 and 66.4 in 2020. On the other hand, Rashaan Evans has underperformed since being a first round pick in 2018 with PFF scores of 65.5, 49.9, and finally a 53.7 last season. The Titans would essentially be getting a player in the same financial situation as Evans, but one who has performed significantly better when on the field. It would be a cheap upgrade, but one that could help them as the window begins to close for them as they lost Jonnu Smith and Derrick Henry continues to get older.