The main reason is Vander Esch’s injury history. He has missed 13 games in the past two seasons, starting with a neck injury that required surgery in 2019 and cost him seven games. He missed six games in 2020 because of a broken collarbone. Had the Cowboys chosen the option, the $ 9.1 million would have been fully guaranteed.
Before officially deciding to decline the option, Executive Vice President Stephen Jones said during draft weekend that the team would still like to keep Vander Esch beyond 2021 if they don’t add the fifth year, but that will depend on how he plays.
Vander Esch’s best season came as a rookie, when he was named to the Pro Bowl after the Cowboys selected him No. 19 overall. He had a franchise rookie record 176 tackles in 2018, including 19 against the Philadelphia Eagles. He also had five quarterback presses, six pass breakouts and two interceptions.
Some teams were concerned about his health coming out of Boise State, but the Cowboys seized the opportunity. However, he injured his neck in an awkward collision with a teammate during a tackle in 2019 and underwent surgery to alleviate a nerve issue. Then, in the opener of last season, he suffered a broken collarbone in the first quarter.
The Cowboys have linebacker Jaylon Smith on contract until 2025, but they can get out of his salary cap deal without too much of a problem. In this year’s NFL Draft, the Cowboys selected linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round, but they believe his versatility will allow them to use all three players at the same time. The Cowboys also drafted LSU linebacker Jabril Cox in the fourth round.
Vander Esch is the third first-round pick not to have his option chosen by the Cowboys since the introduction of the rookie pay system. Morris Claiborne, the 2012 first-round pick, signed a one-year contract with the Cowboys after the 2015 season, and 2017 first round Taco Charlton was released in 2019.