Cowboys' Leighton Vander Esch out to break injury 'chain of bad luck'

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FRISCO, Texas -- Dak Prescott had an opening to complete the pass as he sprinted to his right, but Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch closed down that space with two steps and a dive, and he came up with an interception.

It was a highlight-worthy play by the third-year player during an early June minicamp practice. After the interception, Vander Esch remained on the ground for a little longer than normal. That brief pause, which had players calling for an athletic trainer and coach Mike McCarthy, seemed to raise the same worry and questions that have lingered about his health since the Cowboys drafted him No. 19 overall in 2018.

"I think I hit the ground harder than I ever have," Vander Esch said. "It knocked the wind out of me pretty good."

Social media reactions to the play were not about the takeaway the linebacker created, but were about Vander Esch being sidelined. It didn't matter that it is early June, players had no pads on or that the linebacker returned to practice after a few minutes.

Health is always going to be a storyline for Vander Esch. It was that way entering the 2018 draft because of a neck condition that scared teams away from the prospect out of Boise State. It was that way in 2019, when he missed seven games because of a neck injury that required surgery. It continued last season when he broke a collarbone in the first quarter of the Cowboys' season opener and when he suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the final two games.

"I'm probably going to get hurt more if I'm not playing hard, so if the ball is in the air, I'm going to go get it," Vander Esch said. "If the ball is on the ground, I'm going to go get it. You're going to get the most out of me every snap, so I'm not here to use injuries as an excuse to play half-ass."

Upon his return during the practice, Vander Esch knifed his way through the offensive line to record what would have been a tackle for loss on running back Tony Pollard. He let loose with a huge fist pump.

It was a sign of something Vander Esch can control beyond his health: his ability to recognize plays in different situations.

"It's preparing mentally when I'm watching film and paying attention in meetings and getting the most out of it as you can," Vander Esch said. "The NFL journey doesn't last long and so it's not forever. You got to make the most of it while you're there, and I think just preparing, watching film, making sure you're in position and that you can communicate out there, make the right calls, make the right checks and then just dial in, the more you know, the more you recognize, the slower the game is and the faster you can play."

McCarthy alluded to Vander Esch's health when asked about the coach's expectations for the linebacker.

"Just getting himself ready for the endurance of a full NFL season, and I think everything else will take care of itself," the Cowboys' second-year coach said. "He's been there every day. I love his work ethic. I love his approach. He's top notch at every category when you're talking about preparing for an upcoming football season. Just the course that he's on, I think everything that is in front of him will be attainable."

This is a critical season for the 25-year-old. Mostly because of the missed time, the Cowboys opted not to pick up the $9.1 million fifth-year option on his rookie contract for 2022 that would have been fully guaranteed. Vander Esch spoke with Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones as the team made the decision.

"I've always been motivated," Vander Esch said. "I don't have to use that to be motivated to play better or work harder. I've been on a mission since the season was over because we just can't have a season like we did last season. I'm just controlling what I can control and the rest will take care of itself."

About a week before declining the option, the Cowboys selected linebacker Micah Parsons with the No. 12 overall pick in April's draft.

"I don't control who they pick. I can control my job and how I play and how I prepare and being a leader, being an example for a guy like that," he said.

Vander Esch believes the competition will be "fun," because "competing with each other, not against each other, I think that's the thing about being a good teammate."

In coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme, Vander Esch is moving back to weakside linebacker, the position he played his first two years in Dallas and one that "I think is what it should have been last year," he said. "But I think it's going to be a lot more familiar to what we were used to doing, which is running and hitting and making plays and having fun."

Vander Esch said learning former coordinator Mike Nolan's scheme was not difficult, but the lack of practice time to perfect it without an offseason program or preseason games made it more challenging.

With Quinn, the vision for the defense is clear.

"Things are cut and dry. I mean his intensity and his involvement, I think, is a total game-changer," Vander Esch said. "He's right in there with us, running plays and walk-throughs, and if it ain't right, he'll tell us. And it's like, 'I didn't like this today,' or, 'I did like this today.' He gives credit where credit is due. ... I have much respect for him already and I love a coach like that."

Vander Esch and former Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, who announced his retirement after 11 seasons earlier this offseason, have been linked together because of their play and their injuries. Through three seasons, they both played 35 games. Vander Esch has been credited with 336 tackles; Lee 253. Lee had seven interceptions and 13 pass breakups; Vander Esch has had two and 10.

But Vander Esch hopes his run of injuries is a "bad chain of luck" that will end, and the plays he made last week become the focal point.

"Every once in a while, you can just see a person that's on a mission and I think that's what I've seen from Leighton from the time I arrived," Quinn said. "You could just feel the energy and intensity that he was putting into his workouts to change his body, to get as strong as he could."