It's not just good news for the Dallas Cowboys, it's the best possible news they could've received in regards to the status of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. The former 19th-overall selection (2018) landed on injured reserve in 2019 when he fell awkwardly into a tackle that created a neck stinger, from which he attempted to return from but ultimately could not. Vander Esch went on to miss a total of seven games last season before undergoing surgery in January to repair the injury, and while many outside of the organization pointed to previous neck issues and bandied about his future being questionable, sources confirmed to CBS Sports in December and throughout the offseason that .
When posed the question yet again in the second week of May, sources confirmed there were no setbacks for Vander Esch and that all indications pointed to him being fully recovered. The 24-year-old confirmed these reports in a recent interview with Bobby Belt and Jane Slater of 'The 'Boys & Girl Podcast,' making it known he's ready and raring to go for 2020.
"I am doing wonderful," he said. "I feel as good now as I ever have, before I even got hurt. I mean I'm ready to roll. I've been training full-go for a couple of months now, so it's not holding me back whatsoever."
With the re-signing of Sean Lee, the Cowboys have three capable starting linebackers and also insurance against injury, but the latter isn't something they're concerned about when it comes to Vander Esch. Team exec Stephen Jones noted the latest injury was a one-off and had nothing to do with any pre-draft concerns -- a sentiment echoed loudly by owner Jerry Jones in 2019. This is why the club opted to not sign a linebacker or select one in the 2020 NFL Draft, carrying full confidence Vander Esch will get back to his dominant ways.
Bursting out of the gate in his rookie season, the former Boise State star delivered 140 combined tackles, seven pass deflections and two interceptions en route to a Pro Bowl and Second-Team All-Pro nod; and he says that's the version that's returning to the field soon.
"I feel just as good as I ever have," he said. "I'm just excited to play football at this point and get back on the field and, like I said, whenever they give us the green light to go -- we're going to be ready. From that time on, it's full-go and don't let off the gas pedal."
Vander Esch went on to explain in detail how the injury occurred, cementing the fact it was anomalous.
"Well [the Philadelphia Eagles tight end] and Jeff [Heath] pretty much ran into me while I was falling down," he explained. "I was man-to-man on the running back if I remember right, and right when I turned and looked he had just caught the ball, and they were like right in front of me. Then he kind of pushed me in my side while I was going down. I was going down to tackle him at first, but then I kind of lost my balance when the running back kind of pushed me in my side, I just got caught in a bad position, and that was pretty much it.
"I obviously took the bye week off, because it was right before the bye week, and then sat out the Giants game in hopes that it would be better. I went back and tried to play for two weeks with it, and I dealt with it for those two games, and I just … it was a struggle. It was hard. But like I said, players are always battling through injuries, and they're always playing."
And noting just what it takes to play at the NFL level, Vander Esch said he simply wasn't himself when he attempted to push through the injury in his return after resting during the Week 8 bye and sitting out Week 9. As such, he decided to get another test and when the results came back, it was the smart decision to shut himself down and have the issue surgically repaired -- instead of risking his future entirely.
Given the issue having been his neck, and now completely recovered, no one can argue the wisdom in that collective decision.
"Jeff [Heath] was a prime example of [battling through pain] last year with his shoulders," he said. "I mean he was a freaking warrior out there at safety for us, and he was messed up every single week. But that's what people don't understand is we're putting our bodies on the line every single game. They want to have judgment [and] want to have opinion on everything, and they have absolutely no idea what we're going through [or] what we're putting on the line to go out there and play -- just so they can watch us.
"But that's what you get when you play football, so you've got to be able to play through some stuff like that, and I tried for those two weeks -- it just wasn't working out very well. I was trying my hardest, but I couldn't tackle worth a dang, so I figured probably better go get an MRI. And then found out we needed to have surgery in middle of January."
With the ailment now in his rear view and a new coaching staff in the building, Vander Esch is champing at the bit to move on from 2019 and get back to the business of hunting the opposing offense.
"I'm good. I'm solid. I'm ready to go and healthy as ever."