FRISCO, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch has a massive decision to make about his football future following his . He suffered the injury during the team's 42-10 loss at the San Francisco on "Sunday Night Football" in Week 5, and it has continued to linger, which is why the Cowboys are shutting him down for the rest of the 2023 season.
He underwent a fusion procedure after being knocked out of the final nine games of the 2019 season because of a neck injury. Vander Esch also fractured his collarbone in the 2020 season. His neck injuries date to his college years at Boise State when he missed time in 2016 with a pinched nerve in 2016. Dallas still chose him 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Vander Esch earned his lone Pro Bowl selection as a rookie. Now, the Cowboys are doing their best to support Vander Esch as he mulls over the possibility of retiring and prioritizing his long-term health over staying in the NFL.
"We've had a couple conversations," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. "He's still obviously processing it, but the most important thing from the football staff and the locker room is to have him here [to support him]. This is not just a conversation or one talk. I think the biggest thing is to give him the time and space to sort through this. This isn't the first time he has been through it, he has a history of it. What's in front of him personally. All of those things factor. I definitely want him to be part of this moving forward."
"It's tough, Leighton is a huge, not only on this defense, but on the team," Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said. "Just to see a guy that puts so much into it, trying to help us succeed as well as him succeeding, it's tough to lose a guy and a teammate like that. We're all putting our hands around Leighton, and Leighton is a strong guy. He doesn't show it a lot, but we're continuing to keep our hands around him and just let him know you're here for him."
Kearse gave peek behind a curtain into Vander Esch's potential factors into his decision, including the child he and his wife Maddy.
"Definitely," Kearse said when asked if Vander Esch's injury caused him to think about his football mortality. "We're fathers, brothers, sons. This is a small portion of our life when it comes down to playing this sport. We've been doing it for so long, but you just have to understand the amount of years you spend playing football, you're going to have many more years where you're not playing football. I have kids. Leighton is expecting. It's just a lot of different things you have to think about when it comes down to him. You say a lot when you're young, but as you get older, you understand that this work and the things that we have outside of this are things you can't duplicate and money can't buy. Family and those types of things. You have to think about those impacts a lot when it comes down to your decisions dealing with an injury that severe and most recently with his injury situation.
"It's tough to deal with, and it's not me personally dealing with it. So, I can't even imagine the feelings and the thoughts that's going through his head to have to deal with something of that magnitude. All we can do in this building is keep our arms around him and let him know that we support him. That we're here for him."
Markquese Bell and the next-man-up mentality
The Cowboys have been dealing with injuries at linebacker since training camp when 2023 third-round pick linebacker DeMarvion Overshown went down with a torn ACL. The player who has since stepped up the most in his place to receive significant linebacker snaps is second-year, undrafted player Markquese Bell, a safety out of Florida A&M who was converted to linebacker after that injury in camp. Now, Bell's 86.4 defensive grade on Pro Football Focus makes him the eighth-highest graded linebacker in the NFL. His 87.8 PFF coverage grade is the fifth-best in the league at the position.
"Extremely proud [of Markquese]," Kearse said. "Just a guy that came in, was ready to work and one day you just tell him 'you're going to work with the linebackers' and to go out there and perform the way he's performing, it's tremendous. He hasn't even played his best game yet. I'm excited to see what that looks like when he puts it all together. Coverage, run fits, tackling, making plays on the ball. Just all those types of things that are going to come along the more comfortable he gets playing a linebacker role."
His 43 tackles are the second-most on the team behind only fellow second-year linebacker Damone Clark, a 2022 fifth-round pick out of LSU.
"They've done a really good job, I think you have to be impressed," McCarthy said of the young linebackers who have stepped up this season. "I think anytime you make changes in-season, players step up, and they have been extremely productive. It's [their level of production] unique, but this is something we were dealing with in training camp. I think between the staff preparing the guys as far as converting to sub-packages and dealing with different fronts and so forth. This is how these seasons go. Sometimes you have a position that gets stressed more than others. We're still working through a lot of things."
"That's my guy, me and Damone we came in together last year," Bell said. "We're both learning, but we're teaching each other things. I was a safety, so I'm trying to tell him stuff that the back end might be seeing from their perspective, and he can tell me 'alright, this is what the front is doing.' We're giving each other game to help us grow."
Bell and Clark both credit Vander Esch's mentorship for his ascension at the position.
"Leighton is a great mentor, great leader to this team," Bell said. "Him going down the way he did, it's sad, but we love him, we're praying for him. He's on the sideline with us now, he's like another coach. He was always that, but he's definitely helping me find my way as a linebacker. He's a great guy. It's tough. He's a leader. It's a big loss. He was a big communicator. He was always getting everybody where they needed to be, especially me."
"He has been in meetings with us, we have a group message, he always texts us whenever he can be there," Clark said. "He's there. It doesn't matter if he's on the field or not. … Leighton is still pouring his heart out for us on the sideline, telling us the things that he sees and being a coach on the sideline for us."
One of Vander Esch's key teaching points to Bell and Clark is to free their minds and play ball.
"'Just play fast, and I'm going to make you right,'" Bell said when asked what Vander Esch's best piece of advice has been to him. "That's what I have been doing. It's a family. We're going to mistakes out there, we're young. As long as you play fast, you trust your instincts and you put faith in the ability that God has given you. You can't go wrong now that you know that you're in it for the long haul."
As for the long haul that life is, everyone in the Cowboys locker room would understand if Vander Esch chose to walk away from football.
"We talked to him when he first got hurt earlier in the year about just the decisions with football and life, just kind of reflecting on your perspective and how hard those decisions are to make," Clark said. "When you've been playing football all you life, sometimes that's the only thing that you really know. I know that for me, life and football are two important things, but obviously your health is more important. I want to be able to walk away on my own two feet. I don't want to have to walk away because I'm injured. It's unfortunate what happened with Leighton, but Leighton is a strong guy. Leighton is still here with us, he's just not on the field with us knowing him as you do.
"He's a warrior when he goes out there, but you've got to value the big picture. It's tough, especially that he had these injuries before. It's hard he's missing the rest of the season. That would be hard on anybody. Yeah, for me I saw walking away on your own two feet is way more important. That's Leighton's decision that he has to make."
The Cowboys have the fourth-best scoring defense in the NFL in 2023, allowing only 18.3 points per game, despite losing Vander Esch in Week 5 and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs ahead of their Week 3 game against the Arizona Cardinals when he tore his ACL in practice. Second-year, 2022 fifth-round pick five interceptions are the second-most in the NFL, including a league-leading three pick-sixes (a Cowboys single-season record), and he also leads the NFL with the lowest passer rating against this season, minimum 25 pass attempts against with 17.5 rating. That has defensive coordinator Dan Quinn fired up and proud that his young, former backups have shined by "honoring" Vander Esch and Diggs.
"The ability to take the ball away it's hard to minimize or even maximize that for guys who can do that specific trait on the outside and get the ball," Quinn said Monday. "Tre and DaRon both have that skill about them. When you have that, that's one of the unique things about them. They have this innate ability to find the ball in traffic and come down with it. Those are the things that make them special. We certainly miss Tre not being here but knowing the torch is passed for this season, just for this season, I think DaRon has gladly taken that. We talk about Tre a lot. Same with Leighton. I couldn't be more pumped for guys who step up into those spaces. It's a great way to honor them with how they play."