In an all-important prove-it season, the player nicknamed the "Wolf Hunter" is attempting to establish himself as the alpha of the linebacker pack for the Dallas Cowboys. Leighton Vander Esch saw the organization decline to exercise his fifth-year option for 2022 immediately after drafting Micah Parsons in the first round and Jabril Cox in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, each variable sending a clear-and-present message to Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. A former first-round pick himself, the former is already off to the races in impressing newly hired defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and that's key to helping secure his playing time in 2021 and his future in North Texas in years to come.
Quinn, speaking in early June about players who jumped out at him in his first round of Cowboys offseason works, raved about what he's seeing thus far from a determined Vander Esch -- a player the team has received trade interest for recently but ignored due to their plans for him this coming season.
"I've been really impressed, [and] not just from the OTA time," Quinn told media. "Every once and 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. You could just feel the energy, the intensity that he's putting into his workouts to change his body to get as strong as he could.
"From then on, the questions, in the meetings, you could feel the urgency to go. I guess, just a quick story for him: The tackling, 'Hey I want to improve on this spot. The work that we did and the techniques to do it.' It's been so impressive to see him find little things to work on over and over again, to complete his game. He's been very impressive to me so far."
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As the Cowboys break for the summer and ready for the start of training camp in Oxnard, California, come July, Vander Esch isn't mincing words when asked if he's motivated by his fifth-year option having been waived by the Cowboys brass.
"I've always been motivated," the former Pro Bowler 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.
"... Stephen [Jones] called me. We had a great conversation. I have nothing but respect for the Joneses. I mean, they're the ones that took a chance on me to begin with, so I trust in their plan and I think we have a great thing going.
"Our relationship is amazing. Like I said, I'm just controlling what I can control."
What he can control is -- for the most part -- his availability, which happens to be the only true dark cloud hovering over what would otherwise be a promising young career. The 25-year-old missed six regular-season games in 2020 due to injury and has been absent for a total of 13 over the past two years. He continues to make it clear, however, that not only were his injuries unrelated to any preexisting issue, but also that he's trained feverishly this offseason with the goal of injury-prevention being at the forefront of his process.
"Those injuries are way behind me so I'm not even dealing with that anymore." Vander Esch noted in early June. "But, like I said, I've been training and working out and trying to put more body armor on my frame to make sure that I do give myself the best chance possible to stay healthy. Not that that solves all your problems because you can't help someone rolling up on you or doing anything like that, but you can strengthen yourself and give yourself a little bit more body armor to protect yourself in any way possible. I feel like I did that this offseason."
And now, fully healthy, he's quickly acclimating to the style and energy of Quinn.
"I'm going back to pretty much to my old role from the first two years," Vander Esch said, before side-eyeing the role change attempted by now-fired coordinator Mike Nolan. "Which I think is what it should have been last year, 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.
" ... Yeah [the vision for Quinn's defense is] very clear. Things are cut-and-dried -- his intensity and his involvement, I think, is a total game-changer. He's right in there with us, running plays and walkthroughs 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 but he's also there to tell you when things ain't right, then they're not right. And so I have much respect for him already and I love a coach like that."
So far, the feeling is mutual, and that'll work in Vander Esch's favor going forward. All he has to do now is stay healthy and get back to wolfing down his food in 2021.