On the same day Sean Lee announced his NFL retirement, the Dallas Cowboys teased the possibility of another sweeping change to its linebacker corps.
In a Monday interview with 105.3 The Fan, Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones was noncommittal on the future of LB Leighton Vander Esch, refusing to disclose whether the team would pick up Vander Esch’s fifth-year rookie contract option.
“We’ll be discussing that after the draft,” Jones said.
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Decision Coming Soon
There’s a line of thinking that Lee waited to see how Dallas addressed the position before officially calling it quits. The organization might employ a similar mindset when deliberating on Vander Esch, although time is running out.
The deadline to pick up his option is May 3. If exercised, Vander Esch would pocket $9.145 million in 2022 before hitting unrestricted free agency the following offseason. As is, he’s scheduled to earn $2,095,606 in base salary and count $3,769,748 against the salary cap in 2021, his age-25 campaign.
Dallas added a pair of linebackers this offseason in Keanu Neal and Tarell Basham. Beat reporter Michael Gehlken believes the new acquisitions — coupled with Vander Esch’s injury history, “cap constraints,” and the incoming draft pool — may lead the Cowboys to move on from the former All-Pro.
Vander Esch, having returned from career-threatening neck surgery, was limited to 10 games last year after breaking his collarbone in the opener. He finished with 60 combined tackles (32 solo), one sack, and a forced fumble across 460 defensive snaps.
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Lee Pens Statement Upon Retirement
The unquestioned leader of the Cowboys’ defense for over a decade, Lee hangs up his cleats with 802 tackles, 30 pass deflections, 14 interceptions, and two defensive touchdowns to his name, spanning 118 career games (92 starts) — all in Dallas. The 34-year-old twice made the Pro Bowl (2015, 2016) and was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2016.
Some will remember Lee as a player who never met his full potential, thanks to repeated soft-tissue injuries that slowly sapped his elite playmaking ability. Lee, who released a lengthy retirement statement via Instagram, is “privileged” to remember his professional tenure in the silver and blue as an “honor.”
For 11 seasons I was privileged to wear the Cowboys’ star. We want to play forever. But today, it’s my time to walk away. To the Jones family, you treated me as one of your own since I arrived. You allowed me to shine and grow as a player and person. Thank you for your support and graciousness. To the coaches, your endless hours of work made me a better player and pushed me to places I didn’t know I could go. I’ll carry your lessons through the rest of my life. To my teammates, I love you like brothers. The bond of our shared sacrifice will last forever. I’ll miss the brotherhood, but will cherish the memories from the locker room following all the big wins and tough losses. To the athletic training staff, Lord knows you earned your money working with me. But I couldn’t have made it through my injuries without you. Britt Brown, thank you for pushing me as far as you did. To the fans, you lifted me up when I needed it most. I didn’t want to let you down. If there’s a regret, it’s that I never helped bring a championship back home, because you deserve it so much. To my family, you have always been my foundation. I love and cherish all of you. I couldn’t have done anything without your support. Mom and Dad, you showed me the right way, giving me every opportunity to succeed. To my brother and sister, I looked to both of you for inspiration. To my in-laws, thanks for all your love and support. To my wife, Megan, I love you dearly. You were there for every injury, every bad game. I never would have persevered without your support. To the game of football, it changed my life. Whenever I’m near a field, the smell brings me back to when I first started playing, pulling on a helmet, trying on those shoulder pads, that perfect tackle. To think of the journey now, experiencing things I never thought possible with the men and women who make this game what it is, I’m beyond grateful.
Thank you, Cowboys Nation. It has been my honor.
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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL