Almost immediately after making the decision to select Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys found themselves inundated with criticism from many who thought it was a bad pick, or a reach. They quickly found themselves eating crow, though, when the young linebacker known as the "Wolf Hunter" went on an absolute tear as a rookie, racking up 140 tackles, seven pass deflections and two interceptions with only 11 starts -- en route to landing both a Pro Bowl nod and Second-Team All-Pro honors.
His second season was precipitously different, however, and found him sidelined seven games with a neck injury suffered during an awkward collision during a tackle. He's since undergone surgery to repair the injury and has long been fully recovered, and with Cowboys training camp now underway, he's champing at the bit to get back to playing the type of ball that made him one of the best linebackers in the NFL in Year 1.
"I've been training for like three or four months hard," he said in a Zoom call with media, via the team's website. "I've got all my strength back. Everything's going great there, and I feel amazing. I'm just excited to be on the field."
Vander Esch has also made an equipment change to reduce the odds of such an injury from occurring in the future.
"I have a smaller roll inside my actual pads now too, to help with, I guess you could say 'shock [from impact],'" he said. "But as far mobility and everything, I still have all my mobility, being able to look around with my helmet, no problems there. Just a small adjustment with the roll."
The 24-year-old entered the NFL with a red flag in his pre-draft folder, having dealt with neck issue in the past, but the Cowboys repeatedly made it clear both in 2019 and earlier this offseason his latest injury was in no way tied to anything prior -- or any sort of condition. For his part, Vander Esch is adamant in the same regard and, furthermore, is tired of hearing about how his career will supposedly be shortened by it. Much like in 2018 after he heard his name called by the Cowboys, he's ready to again prove the team right and his detractors wrong.
"I'm not worried about my neck anymore," Vander Esch said, definitively. "I don't talk about it. It is what it is and people can think what they want to think about it. But I've been training for four months hard and I'm already better than I was before I got hurt with that injury.
"It doesn't affect me. I just don't talk about it. It's not worth wasting time about."
And with that, he'll look to adjust to the first coaching change of his young career, with head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan now taking the reins. With that change comes one for Vander Esch, who confirmed CBS Sports' report he'd likely be moved to middle linebacker (MIKE) in 2020, with Jaylon Smith sliding over to the weakside (WILL). Both are raring to learn from Nolan and, as a result, enjoy what could be a bounce-back season for the duo.
And with Vander Esch being green lit, and having zero concerns about his health going forward, it's a foregone conclusion McCarthy and Nolan are just as excited.